As the 2012 presidential campaign begins to heat up, Barack Obama will start to spend obscene sums of money to convince you that Mitt Romney is a corrupt plutocrat, and Romney will spend sums just as obscene to get you to think Obama is a decadent leftist, but there is one thing which both men desperately want you to believe—namely, that the president plays a profoundly important role in determining political outcomes. And they’ve already made a good start, having long since convinced most political journalists. Presidential campaigns and initiatives receive vastly more coverage than almost any other type of political story, and reporters covering other political issues tend to implicitly assume that the president is far more important than any other political actor, devoting a disproportionate share of attention to his views and holding him responsible for whatever outcomes result. But while the presidency is obviously an immensely powerful office, it is far less influential than is widely believed. The illusions that surround presidential power prevent us from thinking clearly about how to effect political change.
One of the powers most frequently attributed to the president is the ability to mobilize congressional votes for legislation he favors by persistently advocating for its passage. However, research from University of Maryland political scientist Frances Lee suggests that a presidential endorsement is just as likely to prevent a law from passing as it is to improve its chances. Drawing on a database of 8,600 Senate votes cast between 1981 and 2004, Lee found that, while members of a president’s own party tend to view a given bill more favorably once he declares his support for it, such support actually makes the other party’s members less likely to back it.
This is because, in light of how polarized our politics now are, most members of both parties think that the most effective way of pursuing their political goals is to deny their opponents even the smallest victory whenever they can. The president is widely perceived as one of his party’s main leaders, so any political debate’s stakes rise significantly once he gets involved, making those in the other party less likely to cooperate. But the structure of the United States government, which often divides power between the two parties and gives even political minorities substantial influence, makes it very hard to pass anything without some support from across the aisle, so direct presidential involvement tends not to have much of an impact.
Pundits and other politicians also tend to exhort presidents to go on campaign-style tours of the country, giving public speeches in order to mobilize support for important policies. Disproving the notion that this approach represents a plausible path to political change doesn’t require any detailed studies. Simply ask yourself how likely the typical person is to come home after a difficult day at work or school and take time out of his or her evening to listen to a presidential speech. For that matter, how likely are you to pay attention to the typical presidential address? Even if you do, do you normally respond by calling your congressman or organizing a rally, or do you just cheer (or fume) at your TV screen? In short, the idea that any politician (perhaps excepting history-making figures like Lincoln or FDR) could move large numbers of ordinary citizens to get involved in politics between elections rests on wildly optimistic assumptions about human nature.
While I have been quite critical of both of these myths about the power of the presidency, I think they flow from a frustration that is easy to sympathize with. While people have probably always complained about politicians’ neglect of their needs, American political life today is afflicted by an unusually rigid paralysis that causes serious problems—mass unemployment and skyrocketing health care costs, for instance—to fester for years without being addressed. Under such circumstances, it is natural to console oneself with the thought that there is a single figure with the power to break through the gridlock if he would only try. However, the ills which plague our politics have much deeper roots than a single president’s flaws, from the difficulties involved in having two ideologically polarized parties operate a political system that relies heavily on consensus and informal cooperation to the intrinsic complexity of the challenges they confront. While the hope that electing the right president might fix things offers a welcome respite from this bleak reality, it is ultimately an obstacle to the gradual and arduous struggle needed to actually change that reality for the better.
Ajay Ravichandran is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.