Guardian
Potent, not omnipotent Even in the US, the president is fettered

Saturday January 15, 2000


The presidency of the United States is enveloped in an aura of power which no other country or head of state can match. While a Chinese or a Russian president may wield awesome influence over citizens' lives, he lacks the legitimacy conferred by truly pluralist politics and free elections. Conversely, the powers of the president of a country like Ireland, who is appointed by popular vote, are constitutionally severely circumscribed. In Britain, some say we have a prime minister who thinks he is president. France, on the other hand, has a president who sometimes seems to think, to Lionel Jospin's annoyance, that he is prime minister. The Australians recently decided not to have a president at all.

In the US, these confusions are wholly absent. The presidency is, indisputably, the highest office in the land. Perhaps it is its trappings - the Oval office, the secret service, the armoured limos and speeding motorcades, Air Force One and the White House situation room - which beguile. Hollywood fantasies like Independence Day have ensured that such symbols have international currency. But more likely, the mystique derives from the sheer, unmatched clout - economic, technological, military - of the man at the helm of the planet's leading nation. America's president is, in the conventional wisdom, simply the most powerful man in the world.

The reality is somewhat different. The man (no woman being on offer this time round) who will emerge from the election process which begins on January 24 in Iowa and ends in November faces checks and balances limiting his political power extending far beyond anything envisaged by America's founding fathers. And the curtailment of the imperial presidency has accelerated in the past decade. It is a trend which is widening the gulf between the electorate's expectations and a president's capacity to deliver. As Republicans George W Bush and John McCain, Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley, and assorted independents scatter promise after promise on the campaign trail, it is as well to ask what they can actually achieve.

The traditional constraints are well-charted. For six of his eight years in office, Bill Clinton has been forced to negotiate, barter, and confront a congress where both houses and all key committees are dominated by his Republican opponents. This has severely handicapped his legislative agenda, the abandonment of his wife's ambitious healthcare reforms and his failure to enact tougher gun laws being but two examples. In November, control of the house of representatives, and possibly the senate, too, could pass to the Democrats. In which case, for example, Mr Bush, if he wins, will face Mr Clinton's problem in reverse. A president's freedom of action is also constrained by the independence of the federal reserve; by the supreme court; and by the considerable fiscal and legislative autonomy of the 50 states.

These limitations are not new. What has changed is the impact of a range of other factors. One is the way the current mood of detachment, some say neo-iso lationism, affects the conduct of foreign and defence policy, one area in which the president, as commander-in-chief, always leads. It is now hard to envisage circumstances in which the US would send 500,000 troops half way across the world, as President Bush did during the Gulf crisis in 1990-91. Even Kosovo-style campaigns and Haiti-type interventions may soon prove to be too politically problematic. This inward-looking trend should not be exaggerated, but it is plainly there, fuelled by the likes of the populist rabble-rouser, Pat Buchanan.

The growth of special interest groups and lobbyists has further restricted presidential room for manoeuvre. Republicans must deal with Christian fundamentalists, pro-lifers, and the big corporations; the Democrats with the labour unions and environmentalists. In similar vein, groups concerned solely with gender or race issues, such as the national organisation for women, can have an impact on an election and a presidency disproportionate to their numbers. Mr Clinton's proposal to admit gays to the military nearly wrecked his presidency in 1993 when it had hardly begun.

The media's less reverential, increasingly sceptical and invasive attitude to the White House is, as some see it, a healthy development. But as Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter, has described in a recent book, the conduct of every presidency since Richard Nixon's has to some extent been distorted by fear, justifiable or imagined, of damaging investigative revelations, allegations of wrongdoing, and personal disgrace. This trend has been exacerbated by congress's growing propensity to appoint special counsels to probe every aspect of a president's affairs. This phenomenon reached a sort of apogee, or low-point, with Kenneth Starr's investigation of the Lewinsky scandal and Mr Clinton's subsequent impeachment. The paralysing effect, in terms of policy and decision-making, of merciless media scrutiny and relentless opinion polling should not be underestimated.

It is no bad thing that the days when John Kennedy could entertain women friends at the White House without fear of exposure have passed; that scams like Iran-contra, executed by Oliver North during the Reagan presidency, are harder to conceal; that presidents are forced to respond to minorities' concerns; that the US is less likely to throw its military weight around; and that domestic consensus-building is now so highly valued by an electorate exasperated by Washington's endless partisan squabbling. The people's message to this year's candidates seems clear. Voters do not want dramatic but empty gestures. They do not want promises that cannot be kept. In Mr Clinton's wake especially, they want a president of good character, who means what he says, who will uphold the nation's interest abroad and speak for its values at home. They want a man who will listen to them but who can take tough decisions. Most of all, they want a man they can trust. It may not sound grand, but the president who can achieve this will be truly powerful.




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