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The Face of the Nation: U.S. Presidency Is More Than Just For Show

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The role of the United States presidency has changed over time in some interesting ways, and most of these changes have been more a reflection of the changes in the social and political situation in the U.S. and the world than legislation, amendment, or judicial tweaking of the actual structure of government, although these factors have been important. The U.S. presidency has changed from the chief negotiator, both among the states and with foreign powers, to the face and representation of collective American values, policy, and direction. While this position serves its purpose, it is beyond the originally intended role of president and comes with some disadvantages and distractions from the intended function of the office.When the Constitution was written to replace the Articles of Confederation, the structure of the United States was still conceived more as a union of individual states. U.S.A. 2.0 improved the relations between the states, allowing Congress not only to issue a common currency but also to improve interstate communications and relations by building postal infrastructure and roads, regulate interstate and international trade, define weights and measures, and impose common recognition of state-issued legal documents, all necessities made obvious by the breakdown of interstate relations under the Articles. The function of the federal government was closer to the function today of the European Union.

Where the central government has most authority over individual states is in the area of foreign relations. The United States act as one body in questions of defense, foreign policy, and the negotiation of treaties. The states obviously have a say in this, through the representatives and senators they send to Congress, but international policy is mainly, structurally, the work of the Administrative Branch and the president.

The role of the president, while it has expanded greatly, has always been very important. The president is not ultimately the final word in the lawmaking process as a 2/3 majority can override a veto, but a simple majority is only enough to pass a bill into law with the president’s approval. But the president is only meant to approve or deny the passage of legislation, and only federal legislation, which was originally meant to almost exclusively cover the areas concerning interstate relations. The president is only a balance of legislative power, and is specifically forbidden from submitting legislation to Congress for their consideration.

The most important functions of the presidency are the power of appointment and to be the architect of foreign policy and the head diplomat of the nation. The president is the commander of the armed forces, although theoretically unable to wage war without Congressional approval, and while unable to submit legislation concerning internal U.S. policy to Congress, the president is responsible for negotiating treaties with foreign states, and submitting these treaties for Congressional approval.

The individual states decided the manner in which the electors in the Electoral College were chosen, and in the beginning it was generally by state legislature. It would be a long time before all states agreed upon a popular vote determining who would receive the state’s electoral vote, and even in this system, as you probably already realize, this is very different from a direct popular vote. The citizens’ role in choosing the president is basically a state-by-state ballot initiative. But I won’t go into that here.

Today the role of the presidency has changed, possibly because people yearn for a national figure, possibly because news coverage is most pervasive on a national level. People look to the president as a representative of the United States not just in the world and in interstate relations but as the main proponent of policy, the center of public discussion, and the final responsible party for the nation’s strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. The president is seen as the “moral compass” for the nation even in affairs over which this office technically has little power.

We find ourselves voting values over competence, patriotism over policy, and personal history over political promise. Even I have this tendency; one of the big selling points for me in voting for John Kerry was my idea that having a national symbolic face today, as our nation is bogged down once more in foreign wars, who worked with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War would have been culturally significant.

Even the Democrats constantly talk about McCain’s status of war hero as being just barely not a good enough reason to vote for him. A war hero is great, but a former prisoner of war who served our country with honor deserves an excellent and dignified retirement package, not a symbolic place as head of state.

Rather than a national clerk or a monarch or whatever position inbetween, the presidency today is more like an online social networking thumbs up-thumbs down vote on which of two options presented best represents our perception of our national identity. It’s more reminiscent of the up and coming marketing technique of compiling data on your customer base and putting together an “ideal customer profile”, putting an invented face on who you’re trying to market to.

Today we have split data. About half of our customers, it seems from the demographic data presented to us, fit into the Republican group, and the other half into the Democrat group. Is our “ideal American profile” a wisened old veteran, a former prisoner of war and a hero, who is willing to work across the aisle and yet remains loyal to his base of Christian values voters, and who, while he knows the horrors of war, is not afraid to put up a good fight, or is the “ideal American profile” the young upstart from a diverse background who pulled himself up “by his bootstraps”, the underdog who defeated the primary candidate we all thought would win?

Policy is secondary to this question, and policy is only brought up as it applies to the question of who best represents us, which is unfortunate because we’re not talking about a powerless figurehead but a politician with a very specific job. The presidential candidates mostly talk about internal issues, safe ground when all they can do in the end is pass or veto what Congress puts on their desk.

For internal issues, we should be turning to our own local and state candidates. A national program to improve education would be great, but electing an excellent school board could have the same effect. We have more power to make change on a local level by being active in local politics than we do to make change on a national level by electing a figurehead whose job isn’t policymaking.

The president is the person to turn to in foreign policy, but the discussion on foreign policy is limited to just a couple of very limited news items. We do not have a real discussion on foreign policy which includes in-depth ideas on trade, world poverty, or the covert political action, such as funding military dictatorships and undermining democracies which are not in line with our business efforts, we have taken in foreign nations for decades. The only things we generally tend to discuss are a few “rogue states”, the wars we’ve started, and very occasionally AIDS.

Right up there with foreign policy is the presidential power of appointment. Secretaries and judges can have a profound impact on policy, and there is generally almost no discussion of cabinet or judges during an election, no names are proposed, and Congressional oversight on appointment has been historically lax.

The president is more than just the face of the national identity, the president has an important job to do which has a real effect on the lives of Americans and an important position in the world. We need to focus more on policy and demand that policy questions be answered, rather than wasting our time pursuing candidates with invasive and nationally embarrassing questions concerning their own personal lives. We do need to make sure we’re not hiring a crook (something we’re notoriously bad at) but we don’t need to hire our favorite movie hero for the job either.


Written by Alex (Capitalocracy)

August 29, 2008 at 9:19 pm

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