Voter Mistake: Overestimating the Power of the Presidency

Influence, yes: Voters, aided and abetted by the media, almost invariably refer to the president as "the most powerful man (or woman, someday) in the world."

It is true that the presidency has tended to become more powerful over time, but it is by constitutional design and accumulated procedures a position of influence more than power.

Except for the role of "commander in chief of the Army and Navy," the power to "grant reprieves and pardons," and "the power to fill up all vacancies during the recess of the Senate" (and these expire at the end of the Senate's next session), the U.S. Constitution gives the president no unrestricted powers.

The description of the president as the "most powerful man in the world" is probably related to his role as commander in chief, specifically with his not inconsiderable power to command the firing of nuclear weapons. No small thing, admittedly, but it is a power that would be cold comfort if used. Very cold.

A key characteristic about the presidency is that the U.S. president is both "head of state" and "head of government." In a constitutional monarchy such as the United Kingdom, the head of state is the king/queen and the head of government is the prime minister. In such countries, the prime minister is far more powerful than the U.S. president, at least if her party has a parliamentary majority. In modern parliamentary systems, where there is no king or queen, a "president" fills the head of state role in a ceremonial fashion, perhaps asking the head of one of the parties to fill the prime minister role and form a government. If the prime minister can form a government without resorting to a coalition, she has much more direct power than the president.

As Republicans have proved in the past six or eight years, the real power in the government, however unwieldy, is found in the Congress, which itself is checked both by its own bicameral structure and the power of the president to veto bills.  In that sense, the president has some limited negative power over Congress.

The tendency of people to think and vote as if the President of the United States is the most powerful leader in the world, guarantees disappointment. The President cannot possibly live up to the messianic expectations of the electorate
—unless of course the President is the Messiah.

The electorate should vote for the president, of course, but it should pay more attention to Congress, which means paying attention to the mid-term elections as well as the presidential-year elections. One of the parties, the Republicans, seems to understand this. The Democrats do not. 

The president, in his role as head of state, is a readier symbol for the people to hold onto than the arguably more powerful speaker of the house and thus commands more attention and influence. But power? Nah, unless he drops that bomb. Wile E. 

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