The Supreme Power

As President Obama prepared to hear from the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of his health care reforms this week, he was doubtless reminded that the President of the United States is but a single player in American political life. Despite the media attention on the Oval Office, the executive branch of government is but one of three branches in the U.S. system and we overlook the Congress and the Supreme Court at our peril if we are to appreciate the true nature of power within the United States.

The President of the United States was originally conceived by the Framers of the American Constitution to be a secondary figure in American politics, yielding ultimate power to the United States Congress. That this was their intention is clear from the very manner in which they wrote the Constitution. The office of President was not dealt with until Article One had clearly outlined the overwhelming powers of the Congress.

Whilst the character of the presidency will differ from one occupant to the next, two criteria remain; Firstly, whoever the President may be, the Constitution bestows upon him the roles of Chief Executive, Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces, Chief Diplomat, Chief Recruiting Office for the Executive and the Courts, and Legislator. Secondly, despite the millions of people that form the Federal Government, the President is the only national unifying force. Uniting the Head of State and the Head of Government in a single office, the president has extraordinary powers, but must wield them under extraordinary limitations.

For despite the power that comes with the presidential responsibilities, there comes the close eye of the United States Congress and the Supreme Court. The President may be Commander-In-Chief, but he requires Congress to declare war. The President may pass laws, but the Court can declare them to be unconstitutional. The President may be the chief recruiting officer to the Executive and the Courts, but many of his recommendations require confirmation by the Congress. The President may nominate Justices and even Chief Justices, but once appointed, they are beholden to no one.

The president’s problems are compounded further by the absence of a strong party system. As Congress grows ever more fragmented, party leadership becomes all the weaker, ensuring that the coalition building that is essential for legislative success is now more difficult. In Federalist Paper No. 48, James Madison wrote of Congress; “Its constitutional powers being at once more extensive, it can with greater facility, mask the encroachments it makes on the co-ordinate departments.” Considering the accuracy of his prophecy, it would be intriguing to speculate as to what Madison would have made of today’s Congress.

Since 1945, Congress has extended its use of appropriations and investigations, and has become increasingly involved in aspects of government, which had previously been the exclusive domain of the Executive Branch. Relations between the Congress and the Presidency have become increasingly strained since the Watergate hearings, which brought the downfall of President Nixon. The sins of Richard Nixon, coupled with the humiliation of the Vietnam War resulted in new Congressional restrictions upon the Presidency. As such, the Congress enhanced its own power and diminished that of the President.

The rather serene nature of the Supreme Court (coupled with its Supreme power) has seen it remain largely outside of the political sphere except in the rarest of circumstances, such as we are in today and as the United States found itself in following the 2000 election. Certainly no presidency in recent memory has been foolhardy enough to challenge the sovereignty of the Court.

The separation of the powers lies at the very heart of the American political system. Over the years however, the relationship between the Presidency, the Court and the Congress appears to have been based les on a separation of powers and more upon a separation of political principles. This resulting clash of political wills results in the condition known as Gridlock. With Congress and the Presidency fighting for political domination, the only true victims are the American public who fail to benefit when legislation is vetoed by the President, filibustered by the Congress, or declared unconstitutional by the Court.

In an effort to project themselves as defenders of the public interest, the presidents often claim to see policies in terms of the national interest, elevating themselves above party, special interests and even ideology. Ultimately, the President must govern effectively. In his decision making process, the president will have to take into consideration a plethora of opinions. Ultimately however, he must act, notwithstanding the disapproval of certain constituencies. The making of such decisions is clearly hindered in times of recession or when, even when the economy is growing, the budget deficit is rising. With tax increases now akin to political suicide, and the knowledge that spending cuts usually affect those that are already suffering, the main way to increase government spending is by borrowing. This however merely increases the budget deficit. As a result of this stalemate, the notion of a Zero Sum Society has been perpetuated: When federal spending is constant, distributional questions become a zero sum game; when one person gains, another must lose. No single individual has the burden of making these distributional decisions other than the president. It is he alone who is responsible for producing an annual budget amounting to over $3,500 billion. His power and responsibilities therefore, are little short of remarkable. However as President Clinton testified, “The president does not govern alone. I am more like the captain of a ship. I can steer it, but a storm can still come up and sink it. And the people that are supposed to be rowing can refuse to row.”

Clearly the field of domestic politics is a bloody one, upon which presidents are fearful of defeat. The cultural and geographic diversity within America is a major reason for the difficulty in domestic agendas. Whatever the President’s decision may be, some will lose out. With lobby groups and political opponents waiting to make the most out of such misfortune, the president’s role in domestic affairs is one fraught with trouble. The notion that the presidency is “the most powerful office on earth” conceals the extent to which the presidency now enjoys less freedom of action than in the past.

The presidency is a constantly evolving office, which is redefined by each new occupant. Barack Obama has successfully placed health care reform at the heart of his presidency, a decision that the Supreme Court has now approved as being constitutional. The tension that was raised in the wait for their verdict, however, reveals the overlooked reality of political power in Washington: The final decision rests not with a directly elected member of Congress, nor with a President indirectly decided upon by an Electoral College, but with nine individuals elected by, and answerable to, absolutely no one.

“The Next Vice-President of the United States…”

For those who are less than inspired by the current presidential election, I have good news; it will all be over in 6 months (well 8 if you include the wait until Inauguration Day)! The dynamics could not be more removed from those of 4 years ago. Barack Obama is far from the historic figure if ‘change’ that he positioned himself as in 2008. He has aged visibly in the role and is failing to stoke the passions as once he did. Unable to run on a platform of ‘change’ he has chosen the rather uninspired ‘Forward’ slogan, that has gone down like a lead balloon.

As a candidate he appears unwilling or unable to take credit for his 2 signature moments without them rebounding in his face: His health care reforms are being considered by the Supreme Court and could be rejected as being unconstitutional any day now, and his efforts to maximise the raid that killed bin Laden were scuttled by his inability to credit the work of those on the ground who actually carried out the raid. So all, in all, Obama is failing to cut an inspiring figure in US politics anymore. He may not be Jimmy Carter just yet, but the signs are worrying.

Facing the president is Mitt Romney. This was the governor of Massachusetts who introduced a health care system so similar to that endorsed by the White House that it was referred to as ‘Romney-care’ by his Republican critics in reference to ‘Obama-care’. This is a Republican that is acceptable in Massachusetts. He is also a Mormon, which causes suspicion amongst some and finally he is the very personification of an old school insider politician; a governor and a son of a governor. This is not exactly the candidate that the Tea Party were hoping for and it is their activism that held so much promise for a potential Republican victory this November.

If the top of the ticket is failing to generate any interest then all that leaves is the VP slot. Readers of The Commentator will no doubt be familiar with the HBO movie Game Change that aired recently and which did much to ridicule the Republican process in 2008 that resulted in the selection of Sarah Palin. Less well known is that the book this was drawn from was focused almost exclusively on the Obama-Hillary race with only a small section focused on the Republican VP process.

However, whilst the selection of Governor Palin provided career a high for Tina Fey and filled ample column inches around the world, the forgotten reality is that the Democratic choice didn’t work out too well either. The initial reaction to Obama’s choice of Joe Biden was hardly euphoric with many, myself included, asking how this choice demonstrated the much-vaunted ‘change’ that Obama had campaigned on. Here in the UK Biden was most known, if he was known at all, for plagiarizing material lifted from Neil Kinnock, aka ‘The Welsh Windbag’ and former Leader of the Labour Party who was routinely trounced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s; Hardy a figure to want to be imitating in order to secure the White House.

Biden, it was argued, helped to balance the ticket. Well, ok, he was white and Obama was black, he was old and Obama was not. Was the implication also meant to be that Biden was experienced and Obama was not? That was a reasonable position to take from the comparison, though hardly a flattering one for the would-be president. Biden was from Delaware and Obama from Illinois, so hardly a great North/South divide. Delaware is also a tiny state with only 3 Electoral College votes, so he didn’t exactly bring much to the party on that score. Since the election Biden has hardly covered himself in glory, committing gaffe after gaffe.

If Obama is victorious in November, his power will begin to ebb away very quickly as thoughts turn to the 2016 race and who will replace him in the White House. Does anyone seriously expect that candidate to be Joe Biden? Of course not. Which brings me to my point: What purpose does it serve to retain Biden on the ticket? He no longer serves any purpose other than to distract attention from the president and to act the fool. He is after all, such a buffoon that even bid Laden recognised the potential value of having him in the Oval Office. So, if Biden no longer helps with the ‘lack of experience’ vote, or with the racial equation, his state brings virtually no Electoral College votes and he serves only as a hindrance, why retain him? There is simply no logical argument for his place on the Democratic ticket in 2012.

Obama needs a candidate who will be his Game Changer for 2012. A candidate to excite the base of the Democratic Party. A candidate who is ready to assume the presidency should the unthinkable happen to the Commander-in-Chief. A candidate with a track record of winning campaigns. A candidate who has demonstrated an ability to be a tough and loyal ally. A candidate whose home state would bring in a large number of Electoral College votes. And finally, a candidate that has a viable chance of winning the White House in 2016. There is no one in the Democratic Party that fits these criteria better than Hillary Clinton. She has denied any interest in the role, but selecting Hillary will also aid Obama in his depiction of the Republican ‘War on Women’ in 2012 and present the Republicans with a dilemma.

The dilemma for Romany is how best to counter a decision to place Hillary on the ticket. It can hardly of escaped anyone’s attention that the Republicans had a week field of candidates this year. The heavy hitters all stayed home, clearly anticipating a clear run against a non-incumbent in 21016. They will be ill at ease with the thought of joining a ticket that, if successful would keep them from the Oval Office for at least eight years, and which if it fails, could end any chance of such a situation arising altogether.

Romney desperately needs a Game Changer of how own, but if Obama selects Hillary then Romney could be accused of playing gender politics if he names a woman as his VP candidate. Not that there is a logical Republican female candidate who brings the same strengths to the ticket as Hillary does for the Democrats. Romney must do something altogether different therefore. His one sure-fire bet is to choose Marco Rubio from Florida. Rubio would excite the Republican base, engage the Latino vote, put Florida in play (remember 2000?) and certainly make a Republican victory more of a possibility than it is at present.

The challenge for Romney is not placing the call; it will be if that call is rejected. The risks are huge on both sides however.  If Rubio refuses and Romney loses, does it get blamed on the petulant self-serving one term senator who placed self ahead of nation and party? If Rubio accepts and Romney loses does Rubio get tagged as a loser, thus running his chances in 2016? If Romney wins, then does Rubio lose all of his appeal when he eventually gets to run, which could be as late as 2020?

This is a debate that has been rumbling for some time and must surely come to a head in the coming weeks. Not everyone agrees with this analysis, which is one thing that makes politics so fascinating. However, with the polls close, the stakes so high, the lead candidates so dull, the VP-stakes could not be more important in 2012.