Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Managing or Exceeding Expectations

Steven E. Meyer


November 21, 2008

Shortly after the November 4 election, I saw a car with a bumper sticker in the form of an American flag. Printed over the flag was the following:  20/01/09--The End of America. The driver, perhaps a McCain supporter, seemed to fear that the inauguration of Barack Obama would bring disaster to the America he thought he knew. On the other side of the political divide, the euphoric celebrants in Chicago’s Grant Park the night of the election predicted wonderful, system-shattering change in the next four years.

Actually, there is nothing new about this. The immediate aftermaths of many presidential elections have exhibited euphoria by the winners and anguish by the losers. The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 and the advent of Jacksonian populism, the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression, and the election of John Kennedy in 1960, which brought the first Catholic to the White House, are just three presidential elections that produced extreme highs and lows.

Certainly there are important pivot points in American electoral history, often associated with war and economic depression. And surely new presidents have instituted some bold and innovative programs for the country, such as FDR’s New Deal. Just as often, however, presidents have dragged the country into trouble, as President Johnson did in Vietnam and President Bush did in Iraq. But historically the American political system has worked within well-defined parameters. For example, even in times of emergency, socialist and fascist movements have never come close to gaining a foothold in the United States, and the likelihood of a radical solution today is even more remote.

Clearly, the Obama administration will face daunting challenges: a deep recession and serious financial problems; healthcare reform; Social Security reform; bringing a close to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; etc. While we have every reason to expect the new administration’s approach to these problems to raise the ire of the “loyal” opposition, the administration’s solutions will almost certainly conform broadly to past approaches.

Most important, there is a whole host of constraints on a president that impinge on his ability to move the system beyond widely accepted parameters, even if he wanted to do so: the pressures of time; lack of information; the demands of Congress; the requirements of state and local governments; political parties; diverse interest groups; the short American election cycle; the courts; public opinion; and events outside the United States.

Over the years, these and other constraints have created a system that clearly restricts presidential power, especially in the domestic arena. Just look at the people President-elect Obama has either already nominated or is considering for nomination: Rahm Emanuel for chief of staff; Eric Holder for Attorney General, Tom Daschle for secretary of Health and Human Services; and Hillary Clinton to head the State Department. While these and others whom Obama will nominate may prove to be favorite Republican targets, they stand firmly within the traditions and confines of American democracy.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all the constraints of our democracy have led to an inertia that has kept even activist, crusading presidents from wandering too far afield. This has led, especially since the end of World War II, to an inability of political leaders to deal effectively with the welter of serious problems the country faces. Sadly, we now have a system that is so hidebound and constrained, with politicians that are so weak and lacking in vision, that most of our difficult issues are unlikely to be resolved.

Consequently, despite the odds against it, we actually need an Obama administration that can break through many of the constraints so that the truly serious issues can be dealt with--hopefully successfully.

--Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Science
    The National Defense University
    (The views expressed here are those of the author alone.)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”