Limited Power, Limited Change

Will Whetzel

Politicians and pundits alike have long characterized the 2012 presidential campaign as one of the most im-portant elections of our time. Indeed, the United States is in the midst of a unique political and economic crisis, and each candidate has proposed drastically different courses of action for how to right the country’s wrongs. Thus, it follows that the outcome of the election will be of utmost importance to America’s future. Or so it would appear.

The truth of the matter is quite different. In spite of the deep ideological divide between the candidates, the current political climate does not offer the president as much control over the country as many people believe. In all likelihood, the results of the election will actu-ally have a fairly limited influence on the policies and operations of the United States federal government.

Take the economy, the most fiercely debated topic in the presidential campaign. Mr. Romney and President Obama have continually provided clashing views on the economy that reflect their deeply-held ideologies. Romney has prescribed lower spending and lower taxes; Obama has recommended the opposite.

But if history is any guide, these radical views on the economy will translate into relatively moderate eco-nomic policy. Since the Republicans took the House in 2010, President Obama has met dead end after dead end in realizing his economic ideals. Witness the bud-get ceiling crisis in 2011: despite President Obama’s insistence on maintaining high levels of spending by taxing the rich, the outcome was a compromise that for the most part extracted concessions from neither Republicans nor the president.

The reality is that the president is actually only a small part of the budgetary process. Congress must ap-prove the president’s budget, and today’s split Congress is unlikely to pass any budget that favors either party too much.

For similar reasons, implementing social policy will be a difficult task for either presidential hopeful. Take President Obama’s record on gay rights. Despite Presi-dent Obama’s support for gay rights, he has only had limited success in addressing the issue. This lack of success is the result of two main factors.

First, as in economic matters, the president still usu-ally has to rely on Congress to support his social initia-tives. True, Mr. Obama has had some successes without the help of Congress, most notably his executive order to repeal the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. But for most larger policy measures, the president will need Congress’s stamp of approval. And barring any outrageous Congressional election results, Congress will remain split, and therefore unhelpful.

Second, the president also has to rely on the Supreme Court to back his social initiatives. Since the Supreme Court is on the whole fairly moderate, it will be hard for either president to convince the court that a dras-tic change of social policy is what the country needs. Additionally, the Supreme Court has historically been hesitant to make large decisions on social issues since social policy is usually seen as the responsibility of state governments.

Foreign policy is perhaps the area of policy where the president has the most authority, since much of foreign policy is left up to the discretion of the executive branch alone. But there are compelling reasons to believe that the president is limited here as well. In fact, history sug-gests that despite the ideological foreign policy rhetoric espoused by candidates in elections, presidents generally embrace pragmatic, realist approaches to foreign policy once in office.

President Obama’s record on human rights is a case -in-point. Even though Obama expressed a keen inter-est in promoting human rights at all costs during the 2008 election, his actions since then have been more pragmatic than idealistic.

For example, as a candidate Obama claimed that as his first act as president, he would shut down the deten-tion center at Guantanamo Bay. However, as president, Obama actually maintained the prison, realizing that, despite its record of human rights abuses, it was the only way to detain suspected terrorists and therefore combat global terrorism.

The 2012 election is surely an important one in many regards. Each candidate represents an ideology that is quite at odds with that of his opponent, and each administration would certainly pursue quite different initiatives in virtually every area of policy. But the real-ity is that the president, while powerful, is limited in what he can and cannot do. In the end, it is politics, not the president alone that determines the future of the United States.

Contact Will Whetzel at [email protected].