Once again, the State of the Union address has brought the President back into the spotlight for the American public, and thanks to the mainstream media, we’ve all seen the headlines: “Unemployment is up 1 percent this month — What is Obama going to do?” To be clear, this article is not about the specific politics of any President, nor any “left” vs. “right” view of the office that s/he holds. (Though up to now only men have held the title of President, I prefer to refer to a hypothetical president using a gender-neutral term.) My purpose here is to not look into whatever the President is currently doing, but what the office of the President actually has the powers to do. Asking the question “What will the President do about X?” begs the question that the President can do something, and I believe that we overburden the President with much, much more criticism then s/he deserves.
One thing we Americans love to do is to pin the state of our economy on the President. It’s been shown in polls that the President’s approval rating is at its highest when our markets are doing well, and at its lowest when the economy is in the gutters. But look beyond the news headlines and you’ll see that the President, regardless of his/her party affiliation, does not have nearly as much power as people attribute to the position.
We live in a capitalist system, which neither party wishes to seriously alter. Our economic system naturally consists of ups and downs, booms and busts. We happen to be in a recession right now, caused by an untold number of complicated market forces, with no one entity or person being at fault. Sure, stimulus packages can be approved, and government agencies can be funded or defunded, but in the end, these are all just drops in an ocean of supplies and demands.
Originally, it was Congress that was created by the Founding Fathers to be the most powerful branch of government. Of course, many things (Amendments and such) have changed since then, but the bare bones of our system have not. The President, as a single individual, may be the most powerful person in the U.S. — and probably the entire world — but the whole Legislative Branch is much more powerful than the Executive Branch. Any decision or veto the President makes can be overridden by a two-thirds majority of Congress. The only issue, of course, is getting Congress to actually become unified enough to get something done. But at the times that Congress does manage to get its act together, you’d better stay out of its way.
Of course, don’t get me wrong: the President’s powers aren’t to be overlooked. S/he appoints an absurd number of people in our government, s/he controls the biggest military in the world, s/he is the head of both our state and government. But even calling someone the most powerful person on Earth doesn’t give us the whole picture. The statement may be correct, but it is deceiving.
The President is a product of larger social forces, more of an embodiment of the American public than the one directly controlling those forces. The President undoubtedly has power, of course, but remember that this isn’t the Soviet Union. We don’t live in a planned economy. There is no magical button that Obama can press, no bills that he pass that will immediately fix every one of our country’s woes. If there were, wouldn’t every President in history have used these tricks already?
We just find it easy to view the President as the one responsible for what goes on in our country because s/he leads it. Watching one person walk up to a podium and give a speech is a lot easier than keeping track of thousands of smaller politicians and business leaders. This is largely a fault of our media, with its tendency to focus on individuals rather than larger social forces. It has led us to treat the President as both the cause of everything good in this country, as well as a scapegoat for all our troubles.
I’m saying that it was not Bush that caused the recession, and I’m also saying it is not Obama that can get us out of it — at least not in the eight years in office that he is legally allotted. The President only influences what happens in our country, s/he does not directly control it. True, s/he may be the biggest of all the influences, but in the grand scheme of things, this still just boils down to a fraction of a percentage point.
Jay Grafft has clearly never heard of the “magic-economy-fixer” button that every president gets at inauguration.