I am always impressed by how seriously (relatively speaking) the United States takes the election of its presidents. (I say relatively speaking because as regards matters of great importance, it certainly doesn’t rank as high as the Super Bowl, or the release of the latest Star Wars movie, or the publication of another Harry Potter book.) Compared to other elections – the many that are held for Congress or for state offices or for local school boards – the election of a president is viewed as being of paramount importance by the media that cover the campaigns and by the voters who actually make the choice.
Every presidential campaign is declared to be the most significant ever by the candidates, and most Americans seem to buy into the idea that each one is, for one reason or another. I recall feeling that way about a few in my lifetime: Johnson v. Goldwater was one; Bush v. Gore was definitely another. But in the heat of the campaigns, I think I probably viewed them all as being of great import for the future of the country, so passionate and fervent was my support of whichever particular candidate I was supporting at that time.
With the experience I have had working in and around state government and as a campaign coordinator in a presidential campaign, I have come to appreciate why each presidential election is, indeed, important for the country and why some are potentially more significant than others. To appreciate the importance of the presidency, however, we need to understand how, on the one hand, the president can change the course of the country’s history and how, on the other, any president is relatively impotent to do so.
And, of course, it all starts with the stuff we learned – or should have learned – way back in our junior high/middle school civics class. (I think it was actually seventh grade social studies for me.) First of all, within the federal government, the president is in charge of the executive branch, which is one of three branches (the legislative and judicial being the other two) that are designed to “check and balance” each other in ways that are so ingenious that the founders (despite their other all too human flaws) deserve all the credit they’ve been given in our history books.
So, for openers, in any particular presidential election, the person elected will have complete control over the executive branch of the federal government, which means he or she will have the ability to determine in what manner the laws of the country are enforced. That power can have significant consequences, but it isn’t overwhelming.
Yes, the president can move the country in one direction or another by the appointment of agency heads (who then determine how fervently, for example, to enforce specific regulations). But no, the president cannot enact laws (that responsibility is assigned to the legislative branch) or overcome a decision (by the judicial branch) that declares a particular agency interpretation unconstitutional or contrary to Congress’s intent.
The president has greater control over the country’s foreign policy, but even there, he or she is limited by the power of Congress to ratify or reject (or modify) treaties and to fund agencies that enforce treaty commitments or the staff needs of the many embassies that exist around the world. And with respect to engaging in military conflicts, Congress always has the absolute responsibility to declare war and the ability to stop the funding of wars should it so wish. And, again, the judiciary is always the final arbiter of disputes over whether the president has exceeded his or her authority in all of these decisions.
One area where a president has unlimited power (theoretically, at least) is in the formation of public attitudes and concerns. This power is what is commonly called the “bully pulpit,” and it recognizes that while Congress consists of 535 elected representatives and the judiciary consists of men and women who only speak through their written legal opinions, the president is a single individual who can speak as the country’s “leader” on any subject he or she chooses to push or on any decision he or she chooses to defend. And some presidents have, at various points of their presidencies, made good use of this power.
But even the best public speakers who have been president have found the bully pulpit to be less accommodating than it could or should be. For one thing, since the election of John Adams (the country’s second president), every president has had a party label assigned to him, which has then meant that an opposing party has been able (through any number of its spokespersons) to attack or espouse contrary views. And in some instances, leaders of the “loyal opposition” have been more successful in molding public opinion than the president, which is to say nothing of the power of those outside of government (media figures, business leaders, protest groups) to overwhelm the message a president may be seeking to broadcast.
And, too, presidents are always facing the voters in one way or another, either because they want to be re-elected or because they are hoping to have a successor from their party elected who can carry forward their legacy. And with the advent of 24/7 news cycles, every president in these instant-poll-tested times will find it hard to entirely ignore popular sentiment that runs against a program he or she wants to pursue. Thus a president who claims a mandate upon securing a sizeable electoral victory can feel relatively ineffectual when the reality of holding office sinks in.
The foregoing only speaks to the president’s power as the head of the executive branch of the federal government. A very strong case can be made that whatever power a president may have in that role is subordinated to the power that exists in state and local governments, where laws and ordinances are passed that can have far greater impact on the lives of the individuals who live in those particular communities. In this regard, it may well be that the election of a governor or a mayor or even a school board superintendent can have more immediate and direct control over the lives of those within his or her jurisdiction than can the man or woman who gets all the attention as the “leader of the free world.”
We have a big presidential election coming up in the next couple of weeks. It might very well be the most important in our lifetimes. But which party controls the Senate and the House, or the state government or city council where you live, could end up being even more significant.