Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Presidents Aren't Gods

This Presidential election season, it's good to keep things in perspective by reminding us of a very important truth:

We're electing a President. We're not choosing God.

Presidents, you see, aren't nearly as powerful as we seem to want (or need) them to be. The US Presidency, as powerful as it is, is profoundly limited in its ability to influence events both inside and outside the United States. Some examples:

• The course of the civil war in Syria, including the fortunes of Daesh/ISIL, are largely beyond the control of the President. That war follows its own logic and its own path. If we sink enough resources into it, we can alter that path - but not in ways we can control. See, for example, Iraq.

• The economic fortunes of the United States are only loosely tied to what the President does. Much of a President's impact is filtered through Congress. If you think taxes, spending, fiscal policy, etc. matter to the economy, blame Congress, not Obama - you may notice that Congress hasn't much followed what Obama wants in the last few years. If you think interest rates and monetary policy matter, blame the Fed. The best a President can do on his own is tinker at the very small margins by tweaking some regulations here or there. The economy is driven by much larger forces.

• Social change in the US tends to see US Presidents following, not leading. Anybody who blames Obama for the legalization of gay marriage has bought into an illusion. That change was driven by a combination of social attitudes among Americans and legal conclusions reached by independent judges.

• Russia's annexation of Crimea was a function entirely of Russian near-abroad political calculations, immune to influence by Obama or any other US President.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture.

It's reassuring to believe that a US President can fix everything we see wrong with the world. It's also easy for people running for that office to blame every ill in the world on the current officeholder. Small wonder that we tend to get more and more disappointed with our Presidents over time - we expect too much, and when they can't deliver we turn to the next person who promises the sun, the moon, and the stars.

So remember this election season: we're voting for someone who will be important, but we are not electing an Omnipotent Being. Your favorite candidate will not turn the world into Utopia. And your least favorite candidate will not destroy it and bring about 1000 years of darkness.

It's just a President, after all.

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