Allan Massie: Does it really matter who becomes President?
THE White House race is almost over, but the ‘world’s most powerful man’ won’t have as much influence as he would like, writes Allan Massie.
The marathon is entering its last lap after the third and final debate, and we shall soon know whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be the man in the White House for the next four years. The long run-up began more than a year ago and the story has commanded acres of newsprint and weeks of TV time on both sides of the Atlantic. Does the result really matter that much?
You may think the question absurd. After all, the President of the USA is often said to be “the most powerful man in the world”. In one sense the description is justified. He is the man with his finger poised over the nuclear button. But it’s very unlikely that the button will ever be pressed. Certainly it is hard to envisage the circumstances which would cause that finger to descend on it – and it would do so only after long discussion and after the President had received, studied and absorbed reams of advice. This is, thank goodness, a power held in reserve. The President may be “the leader of the free world”, but much of the time that world declines to be led. Neither France nor Germany, for instance, followed President Bush into the Iraq war. The election matters to Americans, but quite possibly not nearly as much as pundits in either party would have us believe. Republicans have been severely critical of President Obama’s management of the economy, as unemployment remains high and recovery from the recession is slow. The criticism is natural; it’s what you expect in politics. But even those who utter it should know that the President’s power to influence the economy is very limited. Governments everywhere pretend to have a greater ability to manage the economy than they actually possess. This is a truth which should be more widely acknowledged. Moreover, the bigger the economy, the less influence a government can have, or the longer it takes to bring any influence to bear. The old comparison with turning an oil tanker around holds good.
The President’s power is further limited by the American constitution which provides for a separation of powers that no longer exists in the United Kingdom. A British Prime Minister can take action provided that he or she has a majority in the House of Commons. There is no longer any balance between the executive and the legislature. So the Prime Minister or chancellor decrees and Parliament enacts. Any budget will be at most amended only in detail. They do things differently in Washington. The constitution sets President and Congress at odds, even when the President’s party has a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
No US budget is ever passed in the form that it is delivered to Congress. Wheeling and dealing is the rule. Government is a process of perpetual negotiation. All members of Congress are far more responsive to the interests, if not the opinions, of their constituency than they are to the President. A strong British Prime Minister like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair or, indeed, Gordon Brown can say “do this”, and it is done. No American President has that power in domestic affairs.
Whoever wins will have only a limited power over the economy or social policy. It is rare for an American President to get Congress to pass controversial legislation.
Foreign Affairs are different. The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. He enjoys a considerable latitude. Though, constitutionally, only Congress can declare war, a great many wars in America’s history have been launched without the approval of Congress. This is partly because they have often developed incrementally, through “mission creep”, partly because the constitution does grant the President a deal of autonomy in the management of America’s external relations.
The important thing to remember is that the President’s powers are very much those of an eighteenth century British monarch; the powers indeed which George III possessed when the American colonists rebelled – successfully – against his government. Even so, the President cannot long pursue a policy in defiance of opinion in Congress. That was George III’s experience too. As the American war went badly, he was told that “The Parliament have altered their opinions”, and so the king, like his predecessors, must “yield to the opinions and wishes of the House of Commons”.
In any case, the President’s freedom of manoeuvre in foreign affairs is curtailed by realities. These are partly geopolitical and partly because he must be responsive to public opinion at home, in the country and at Washington. Neither Obama nor Romney can alter the fundamentals of American foreign policy. Neither, for instance, could abandon Israel even if he wanted to.
One may also safely assert that neither will commit the USA to another land war; the memories of Iraq and Afghanistan are too recent, too warm and too painful. Whichever is elected will continue the campaign against Islamist terrorism, but will do so in a low-key manner by the deployment of “special forces”, drone warfare and targeted assassination. Either will continue to apply pressure on Iran, but stop short of military action. If Romney wins he will be far more cautious in action than he has been in speech because he will be constrained by reality.
America’s policy, since it assumed a leading role in the world between 1941 and 1945, has been remarkably consistent, and generally restrained. President Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may fairly be seen as an aberration – and one that will not be repeated in the near future.
So it may not matter too much who wins this election. It will not matter because the power of “the most powerful man in the world” is severely limited. What does matter is that he looks and sounds Presidential. We know that Obama does, and the chances are that Governor Romney would play the part just as convincingly. The election campaign is a gorgeous show, but the result is not that important.
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