Is the president as powerful as we think?

Moving to Canada
Moving to Canada. Austin Gerth.

With this column I’d like to look at different parts of our political system and examine how each has contributed or is contributing to the strange and disillusioning state of US politics in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Cards on the table: I hate our country’s politics with a fervor so great it turns back on itself and lands right next to love; with this column I hope to stare down those contradictory feelings and understand them, rather than use them as an excuse not to be engaged. I hope you’ll join me. (I’ll explain this column’s name in a later installment).

Anyway, to kick things off, here’s something I dislike: it seems like many of us have a habit of blaming or crediting the president for pretty much everything, even things that are ultimately out of his or her power. The president becomes a symbol for any bill he or she supports, and for all of the people who share his or her position on any given issue. But if you stop and think about it, the president’s power is pretty limited (on purpose). The president can do almost nothing without the support of a large number of other people.

How about a case study: a Concordia professor I know recently posted something to Facebook that got me thinking about this: it was a meme of Barack Obama with the caption “Only Pres. Obama could bring gas down to $2.50, nearly triple the stock market, end two wars, get Bin Laden, and bring unemployment down to 5%, and still be told he’s failing as a president.” Facebook politics in general will warrant a future article of their own, but, just for fun, let’s look closely at the claims in this single meme. (Sidenote: the point being made by this meme is that president Obama is a victim of racial bias among his detractors; I’m deliberately misreading the meme a little, and the professor’s reason for posting it, to get at another layer of meaning).

-Gas Prices: The precipitous drops in gas prices in the last year or so came from a boom in US oil production, as well as stable production from conflicted regions like Iraq, among other factors, according to an Oct. 28, 2014 Christian Science Monitor piece headlined “Why are oil prices falling? 5 reasons you might not expect”. You could argue that Obama has contributed to the Middle East’s stable oil production, but that’s still a distant cause.

-Stock Market: I don’t really understand the stock market, and after reading the Revolut review, I’m convinced no one else does either, so giving president Obama credit for tripling it seems to me like giving him credit for the weather. I may be wrong.

-Ending Two Wars: Barack Obama did end two wars, more or less.

-Getting Bin Laden: Barack Obama gave the word to infiltrate Bin Laden’s compound, though we should also not patriotically delude ourselves that killing one man was anything more than a symbolic victory, especially given that what our country has been at war with for the last decade and a half has been a corrupt ideology, not a person or faction.

-Unemployment: Regarding unemployment, I really just don’t know. Certainly the economic policies put forth by the Obama Administrations of the last seven years must have had something to do with our recovery from the recession that hit at the end of the aughts, but there are so many complex considerations here that it seems strange to give primary authorship of the job recovery to either any one person or any one administrative body.

So we can see here that several of the achievements attributed to Barack Obama by the meme cited above are less his achievements than simply things that happened while he was president. And where he can claim responsibility, it is usually with the aid of so many other people and variables that it seems ludicrous to give him sole credit, but inevitable because the alternative is harder to conceive.

Why is it a problem that US political discourse tends to simplify itself into a “blame/praise the president” dichotomy? Because it gives people the impression that the presidency is more important than it is, and it simultaneously prevents us from discussing the actual causers and solvers of our problems. This false importance leads us to watch the presidential election unfold over the course of two full years while comparatively ignoring the many other elections which actually hold more sway over our everyday lives. It leads us to demand promises from presidential candidates that they’ll never have a hope of keeping (see the myriad republicans swearing to repeal Obamacare).

I’m not saying the presidency isn’t the single most powerful position in the government: the power to veto bills alone earns the presidency that distinction. But it’s Congress and the Senate who propose and write those bills, and it’s the Supreme Court who decide whether those bills are valid. And that’s only at the national level; state and local governments have a more direct impact on the lives of their constituents than the national government ever will. We would do well to remember every once in awhile how deliberately weak the strongest person in the world is.


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