Presidential matteringness is low in 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Would a President Romney try to kill Big Bird?
It all depends on the makeup of Congress.
The US president is a relatively weak figure in politics, quite paradoxical considering how much attention the presidential race receives compared to any other. An American president cannot simply pass bills along the party line as is the case in many parliamentary democracies, and having elections for House seats every two years makes this worse: a member of the House needs to have something to show constituents every two years, and that means they are far more likely to choose the wishes of their constituents over any long-term plans if the two conflict.

In spite of all the attention then, it should be remembered that a presidential election is an election for about a third of the political power in the country. Another third is decided by the House, and a third of the last third is decided every two years in the Senate. A year where a presidential election takes place thus decides the political structure of about 80% of the government. The other 20% (two thirds of the Senate) gets to sit it out.

(Note: very rough estimate. Division of power in the US has more to do with which roles are played by each branch as opposed to a direct sharing of authority. House passes budgets, Senate confirms appointees, President presides over direction of the executive, etc.)

So how much does it matter who the president is? This presidential 'matteringness' differs each election, and is often contrary to a president's effectiveness.

For example: President Ron Paul. Everybody knows what Ron Paul stands for as a member of the House, everybody knows what he would stand for as the president. His matteringness as a president is very high, because President Ron Paul is very different from President Generic Party Line. On the other hand, effectiveness is hard to gauge: he passed very few bills in the House, and would likely have a lot of opposition from both parties if he were ever elected.

The other side of the coin may be Mitt Romney. He was eager to win nomination and is eager to win election to the extent that he can pivot his political position 180 degrees in a few weeks if necessary, and as a president would certainly work within whatever seating there is in the House and Senate, with just a few personal touches here and there when he can avoid rocking the boat. A President Romney with a Republican House and Democratic Senate would probably be able to pass quite a few bills - in the House because the GOP would be less likely to oppose a bill of his due to party loyalty, and the Senate because it is not too hard to get a few extra votes here and there if one makes the preparations ahead of time. His presidential matteringness is low because having a President Romney would not be a great deal different from a situation where there is no president in the first place, just a lower and an upper house.

Barack Obama has a middle of the road matteringness. He does bring some of his own ideas to the table, but often borders on tinkering instead of outright change. Some of this may be due to wanting to be a serious president, in order to not spoil the opportunity for others later on who do not fit the common presidential mould (i.e. minorities, women, or both). He may also have believed in his heart of hearts that the Affordable Care Act, for example, could have passed with Republican votes due to its similarities with the health care passed by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

John McCain's presidential matteringness, on the other hand, was fairly high. Not to the extent of Ron Paul, but enough that the political world with  John McCain as president would be quite different than with no president at all (just the House and Senate, again).


So why does this matter? It matters because this election is not a great deal about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, certainly not to the extent that it mattered in 2008. If Mitt Romney were to be elected the policies he carries out will almost certainly be tailored to Congress, and if Barack Obama is elected with a similar makeup to now (bare Democratic majority in the Senate, a slimmer GOP majority in the House as predicted at the moment) then we may see more gridlock. Perhaps a less fettered Obama in his second term, but still without the legislative might to carry out his ideal agenda.

In short, pay extra attention to your local House and Senate election (if there is one) this year, because it will matter a lot. Check whatever local polls you can find and consider donating to the candidate you prefer (and also check other close races in the country), if you have only been paying attention to the presidential race so far. Fivethirtyeight's return on investment index is a great place to start.

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