What Good Is A President, Anyway?

As the interminable election season grinds on (though we are constantly assured that it is still ‘early days’ and that Trump still has plenty of time to self-destruct in a suitably flamboyant manner), I continue to attempt to ignore the ins and outs in the same way I try to ignore Christmas music in mid-November.

With about as much success.

As perhaps in every presidential election, I find signs that the nation is wondering what exactly a president is good for.

The economy is so large, so complex that the president’s influence is rarely more than marginal.  Policy and legislature are under more direct control, but still heavily constrained by bureaucracy and congress.  Neither problem stops presidents from taking credit when things go well, of course.  And the public blames them when things go wrong (just as inaccurate, but fair by way of enforced consistency).

Today, in the NYTimes, Ross Douthat noted the belief in the Great Man Hypothesis of history that he sees as driving the candidacy of Ben Carson.  But this isn’t just a Carson problem.  Election campaigns package and sell the leadership figure, the embodiment of the advertised policies.

Being the embodiment of policies doesn’t get you very far without the whole shadowy presidential organization (at minimum, a plan and a cabinet) that could make the policies happen.  Perhaps Carson does lack this organization.  As noted before, I’m not ready to delve into details, so I’ll generalize: the figure of the president isn’t nearly so important as all the television sound and headline fury indicates.

With one exception.

When there is a disaster, a crisis no one saw coming, for which no SOPs exist (or alternatively have gotten so dusty as to be useless), then the individual president is key.  Such events magnify the power of the bully pulpit.

When there is no time for focus groups and polling and carefully the crafted middle-paths, the president’s real personality shapes the debate.  In the chaos and bureaucratic paralysis and infighting and finger pointing, the president’s word is the weight that tips the scales toward a single course of action.

Consider Bush’s speech after 9/11.

Following the platitudes and too-cute phrases, he said, “Immediately following the first attack, I implemented our government’s emergency response plans.”  First item on what that plan entails?  “Our military is powerful, and it’s prepared.”

Later, he said, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”  Let no one say he didn’t keep that promise.

And also, “America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism.”

It could have been the fight for justice.  It could have been the war on al Qaeda.  It could have been many things.  But with Bush’s words, it was the birth of the War on Terror.

That is why the person of the president is important.  Even in this time of political personalities ad absurdem, there remains a kernel of truth in the process.

2 comments to What Good Is A President, Anyway?

  • J. H. Sutherland

    With a proxy war being fought in Syria and China’s nine-dash line crystallizing further with each passing week, the abrupt election-year US preoccupation with domestic political issues would be unforgivable if it weren’t so predictable. It is more critical than ever to have a leader in the Oval Office who understands American entrenchment abroad, who can approach complex global threats without resorting to xenophobia, who can harness our military dominance into a role as global watchdog, not as global bloodhound.

    Instead, the world will watch while lukewarm celebrities proffer Band-Aids to a hemorrhaging middle-class. That our president as an individual is a critical figurehead with a crucial role in upholding global security is a fact somehow overlooked by normally dependable American hubris. I fear that the laudable ‘Asian Pivot’ will become another victim of the political vacillations which so inevitably accompany a change in administration. While Obama struggles to get two congressmen in the same room together, Putin and Xi are being portrayed as empire builders, two corners of the global power triangle that aren’t afraid of their own constituencies. As our 2016 candidates squabble over the inherent contradictions of a two-party system, watchful foreign powers will see only petulant inconsistency in an era when decisive action is key.

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