Presidential Power

The power of the President of the United States is an odd, paradoxical thing, public perceptions of which suffer from a significant misconception. The public thinks he controls the country, and expects him, therefore, to do ‘something about everything’. It’s why, I think, people in Britain and elsewhere, when polled, support the introduction in their own systems of a directly-elected executive: because they think they’ll be electing the person who will run the country. But in a presidential system of separated powers, this person has little direct power over domestic politics.

Obama’s administration may have put forward an aggressive stimulus package, but it only became law after congress amended and passed it. He is currently expending considerable time and energy persuading lawmakers that his budget is the right one. The President is, in this sense, the persuader-in-chief. His power is the power to get people in Washington to agree with him. It’s why he’s at his strongest when the public is on his side.

This excellent article shows how Presidents of the modern era can flex their muscle. This is how they can be powerful. It’s not constitutionally-enshrined power; it’s not continuous and ever-available. It’s contextual. What Obama is doing is effectively saying ‘my government has given you a bucket of money, so I’m going to get my way’.

His ability to do it is founded almost entirely on his popularity. The response has been largely favourable. If Bush had done this a year ago, it would not have been so. The ‘Obama gets tough on failing CEOs’ headline would have been substituted with ‘Bush in unprecedented intrusion into free market’. The flexing of executive muscle is, paradoxically, not often viewed positively: the US public expects the man they elect to solve every problem, to be genuinely in power, but when he pushes the boundaries of executive authority in an attempt to be so, they tend to react disapprovingly, as they did towards Bush-Cheney.

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President Obama realises it’s risky, but his move was shrewd. He knows his political future is wedded to the public perception of both the economic situation and his response to it. He reasons that since by taking the bet that a huge bailout will fix things, he now ‘owns’ the economy as a political issue, then he’s right to intervene in every situation where he thinks a change needs to be made. And I think, for now, the public will side with him. They’ve tended to side with his judgement more often than with that of bailed-out CEOs.

An impressive piece of politics by the President. He’s playing hardball.