Friday, February 27, 2004

When I was an undergrad I took a seminar on the American Presidency. It was called “The Rhetorical President.” I’m not going to dig out my notes, but basically the premise was that starting in the late 19th century, the president went from being a pretty bland CEO-type to a leader of their respective party. This coincided with the decline of party politics and the rise of personality-based campaigns. Much of the course was based on the book by Jeffrey Tullis, “The Rhetorical President.” My professor was writing a book trying to prove that Tullis was a nitwit (more or less) and he needed 10 undergrads to do his research for him.

The point of all of this is that I find myself yearning for an early 19th century president. These days, depending on who you ask, George W. Bush is either single-handedly driving our nation to destruction or our savior whose greatness is unprecedented in our history. Bill Clinton may be Satan’s right hand man or a brilliant leader whose greatness is enhanced by his humanity (i.e. lying about sex).

However, last time I checked there were 535 fine (?) men and women whose job it is to actually write, debate, and pass laws. Unless of course Bush and Rumsfeld have locked them all up as enemy combatants under the Patriot Act…hmm…

It’s just ridiculous to me that we hold the president totally accountable for the policy direction (and successes and failures) of this country. Is Bill Clinton responsible for the economic boom of the 1990s? Is George Bush responsible for the stagnant economy? Our world is so incredibly complex that no one man (or woman, someday probably) can reasonably be expected to understand it, let alone control it.

For those that lampoon George Bush’s tax cuts, decision to go to war with Iraq, environmental policies, etc., remember that Congress passed the tax cuts and approved the resolution to go to war. Also remember that the Republicans do not have a majority in the Senate. Remember that when you’re blaming Clinton and the Democrats for everything that’s gone wrong in the country since he became president that the Republicans have had control of the House and Senate since 1994!

Let’s be realistic and forget about this ridiculous cult of personality. Policy is made by a complex interaction of elected officials (including the president), government employees, interest groups, and the public. I would argue that policy is strongly influenced by the network of interest groups, corporations, and lobbyists whose job it is to shape legislation. Of course the system is completely corrupted by a legal regime of barely concealed bribery (i.e. “campaign finance”), but that’s for another day.



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