The President Doesn't Matter

Forget the president. Not totally, of course. The president matters. But not as much as you think. Not as much as you've been led to believe. The centrality of the executive is something of a convenient fiction in American politics. Convenient for the media, which can tell the story of national affairs by following a single character. Convenient for the party that holds the White House, which can outsource the messy work of constructing an agenda to one actor. Convenient for the party that does not hold the White House, which can create an agenda out of simple opposition. And convenient for voters, who can understand politics through the actions of a discrete player and offload their dissatisfaction onto the failures of a hapless individual.

But the "great man" theory of the presidency is not convenient when it comes to actually creating change. Again and again, presidents disappoint. They fail to pass health-care reform or Social Security privatization. They don't ease partisanship or break through gridlock. They prove impotent in the face of immediate crises and leave long-term challenges to fester. And so we tire of them, resolving to replace them with more presidents. Better presidents. Presidents of the other party, or of the same party, or of no party at all. Businessmen like Mike Bloomberg, insurgents like Ralph Nader, charismatic leaders like Barack Obama, self-professed mavericks like John McCain.

Executive leadership is important, of course, but the continual failure of our presidents should be lesson enough that it is not sufficient. The executive is but one actor in a sprawling drama. Consider this: Comprehensive health reform has been attempted or considered by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. It cannot be that they were all dunces, or weaklings, or incapable legislative tacticians.

A better explanation was proposed by the political scientists Sven Steinmo and Jon Watts in their paper "It's The Institutions, Stupid." Surveying this history of failure, they concluded, "The reason that the United States is the only country in the democratic world that does not have a comprehensive national health insurance system is that American political institutions are structurally biased against this kind of comprehensive reform." In other words, the failure of health-care reform was not a failure of executive will, but the executive's failure to master the independent institutions and external forces that would ultimately prove decisive in the legislation's success.

And, in a way, it was our failure as well. So long as the public understanding of American politics is so resolutely focused on the president, change will be a heavy lift, because the public will continually apply pressure to only that one point in the system -- and often, it won't be the chokepoint.

Economic policy is a powerful example. Questions of job creation and fiscal management are central to our quadrennial presidential contests. But relatively few voters realize that the most important decision the president will make is who to appoint to the powerful, politically insulated position of chair of the Federal Reserve. He or she, after all, will control interest rates, decide whether to pursue full employment, and, in times of economic crisis, become something not far from economic czar. In recent months, the Federal Reserve has become, for regrettable reasons, rather more visible. But the powers and quirks of its chairman, Ben Bernanke, remain poorly understood.

National security is another example. All manner of observers can describe their favored plan for withdrawal from Iraq, argue the success of the surge, and knowledgeably place themselves within the liberal internationalist or neoconservative tradition. Such points are central to the presidential election. But relatively few voters keep a close watch on the military itself or understand the transformation it is undergoing as it adopts counterinsurgency doctrine. Fewer yet can name John Nagl, the doctrine's most persuasive and visible apostle, much less describe his theories or detail the murky nature of his influence.

Health care is little better. The intense primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton educated many Democrats on the difference between health plans with individual mandates and those without. Far more Democrats could describe this campaign minutiae than could identify the Senate Finance Committee as the crucial staging ground for any actual attempt at reform. Fewer still could name Max Baucus, the committee's powerful and opaque chair, who will arguably be second only to the president in deciding whether health reform succeeds or fails.

In this issue, we attempt to shine some light on these neglected byways of American politics and policy. We are mindful that it is our November issue. The election issue. The presidential issue. Shortly after this magazine hits newsstands, the race will be over, and a president will have been chosen. This is the world he -- and his agenda -- will face.