We are obsessed with Presidents. What they say, how they say it, and what they wear. We constantly evaluate their demographic characteristics – age, experience, race, gender, income, and education. Indeed, the list of characteristics is long, and every quality seems to matter.
Because we believe Presidents are the driving force in American politics. We identify Presidents as the cause of important political events and outcomes: The actions of Presidents make it all possible.
This explains why so many Americans are anxious about who wins in November. If the President is truly the most powerful figure in the world, neither party can afford to lose.
Let’s consider this obsession in greater detail.
It distorts our understanding of politics
By recognizing the President as the chief cause of political change, we fail to recognize the powerful role of environmental factors. Presidents govern within an institutional environment. That environment powerfully influences presidential actions and ultimately the success of all Presidents.
For example, recall from high school the familiar terms ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances’. They refer to an approach to governing that divides power among the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches. It is a simple yet elegant structure that prevents the concentration of power in any one branch. Each branch can limit or check the other two. Therefore, no one branch becomes supreme.
For Presidents, the institutional design represents a constant source of frustration. Every occupant of the White House quickly realizes the limitations of their office and curses the institutional structures designed to curb presidential powers. The fact is the President must share power.
The figure below illustrates the point. The graph depicts the legislative success of George Bush during Republican and Democrat control of Congress. Notably, Bush’s success declined when Republican’s lost control of both Houses – an approximately 40 point drop from 2006 to 2007. Then, in 2008, an additional 20 point drop in success rate.
President Bush did not change. Rather, the institutional environment did. In 2005-06, Congress made possible Bush’s legislative success. Two years later, the path forward changed and new obstacles effectively prevented Bush from accomplishing his legislative goals. Again, Presidents must share power.
Typical news media stories about the President’s inner circle, the changed tactics, the uneven nature of Bush’s personality and leadership style are not helpful. They merely validate our obsession and distort understanding of legislative politics.
Across a comparable institutional context, the pattern of President’s Obama’s legislative success looks similar. Once again, with his party in control, a high percentage of Obama’s legislative initiatives passed. When Republicans gained the House (not House and Senate as in the Bush example), Obama’s success diminished – from 92% success rate to 53%. A drop of nearly a 40-points.
In short, a president’s legislative achievements turn crucially on the majority party in Congress not on the person in the White House. Abandon the idea that presidents are the root cause of everything. By taming our obsession with presidential power – and indeed an individual’s capacity to shape history, the extravagant tales of presidential authority fade and a broader, deeper, more complex political reality appears.
To be clear, I am not asserting Presidents Bush and President Obama were irrelevant. Their actions were often consequential, a challenge to the status quo, and necessary for significant change. They were effective Presidents when the institutional context favored their party – less effective when the opposition took power.
And that is the point — we can master politics by focusing on the political environment not fixating on individual characteristics. Political change comes slowly, often well after a President leaves office. But don’t take my word, read President’s Obama’s observation about change. He recognize change does not happen quickly, ‘…you can’t turn 50 degrees’.
“Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvement or try to steer the Ocean liner two degrees North or South so that 10 years from now, we’re in a very different place than we were. But, at the moment people may feel like we need a 50-degree turn. We don’t need a two degree turn. You say, ‘well, if I turn 50 degrees, the whole ships turns. And you can’t turn 50 degrees.”
The obsession with Presidents prevents us from seeing the entire political landscape. It is a demanding terrain that presidents must recognize, accommodate, and find ways to navigate. Political figures are small compared to the larger forces that comprise the topography of politics. The personal narrative of great men and great women commanding politics distracts us from the environmental features that determine political outcomes.
By respecting the power of the political environment, electoral losses and victories take on a new meaning. No one single person is that important. Removing one President for another does not magically improve or destroy the lives of millions of Americans. It represents a mere thumb on a very large scale, tilting slightly the political, economic, and social systems in favor of Democrats or Republicans.
So, if your favorite presidential candidate wins on Election Day, enjoy the moment, clap your hands and smile. But recognize the power of political institutions, the capitalist system, and the social conventions developed over two centuries. These environmental features endure, Presidents do not.