As the campaign enters its most frenetic period, when millions of dollars will be spent and millions of words will be spoken, we should remember this fundamental truth: as important and powerful as the president is, he is not a comic book superhero who personally determines the fate of the nation at every level.
Campaign rhetoric says otherwise. Everything bad that happened between 2001 and 2009 was George W. Bush's fault; all by himself, he caused the financial crash, the increase in the national debt, the failure of General Motors and the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Or, between 2009 and now, everything bad that happened as Barack Obama's fault; all by himself, he kept unemployment high, doubled the national debt, created hatred of America in the Middle East and destroyed the concept of traditional marriage.
If we allow ourselves to be caught up in such bumper sticker analysis, we become susceptible to bumper sticker promises, all of which are made in the first person singular. "I will lower taxes — I will create X million new jobs — I will heal the planet — I will end the recession — I will balance the budget." The most outrageous such promise made by a major nominee came from John Edwards, who proclaimed, "When John Kerry is president, Christopher Reeve will walk again."
By himself, a president can do none of those things.
First, the Constitution intrudes. Contrary to how it's done in Hollywood movies, the president cannot introduce a bill in either House — he must get a member of Congress to do it for him. Bush wanted to reform entitlements and rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but Congress wouldn't go along. Obama wanted to enact comprehensive immigration reform and close Guantanamo, but he couldn't do either, even though his party had firm control of the House and a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. When legislation is involved, presidents do not have the ability to act on their own. (Neither do senators — politics is a team sport.)
Next, the economy intrudes. It can be deeply affected by federal policy, but it cannot be controlled by Washington because no one, in either party, has ever figured out how to eliminate the business cycle. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich both claim credit for the federal budget having been balanced while they were in office in the late '90s; neither will acknowledge that it happened primarily because of the "dot.com" boom — something they had nothing to do with.
The world intrudes. Bush was not responsible for al-Qaida's attack on 9/11 in 2001 and Obama didn't cause the collapse of Greece in 2011, but both events changed their agendas significantly. Throughout history, presidents have been forced to react to events as much as initiate them.24 comments on this story
Finally, demographics intrude. The percentage of retired people in America is higher than it has ever been and rising. More money is spent on their programs than any other governmental activity, including defense. As the European countries, whose populations are aging even faster than ours, have found out, no amount of campaign rhetoric about "protecting" these programs can change this trend.
I do not suggest that it doesn't matter which party wins the election, because it matters a lot. What I'm asking for is more candor from both. Winston Churchill became prime minister at Britain's darkest hour and said, "All I can promise you is blood, toil, tears and sweat." The nation rallied to his side. A similar kind of honesty about the problems we face would be refreshing.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.