During the 1992 Presidential campaign, James Carville wrote “The economy, stupid” as part of the campaign strategy to defeat sitting President George Bush. The phrase quickly morphed into “It’s the economy, stupid” and the strategy worked – despite a string of foreign policy successes, George Bush was resoundingly defeated in the 1992 election. Since then, Presidential elections have given little reason to doubt the wisdom of the phrase – 1996 and 2000 were largely decided on domestic issues, and despite the increasing unpopularity of the war in Iraq and a Democratic challenger with an (on paper) distinguished war record, George W. Bush won reelection in 2004. Barrack Obama beat out John McCain in 2008, despite McCain’s decades-long record of experience in foreign affairs.
All of that said, “It’s the economy” is a strategy for politicians to get elected – that doesn’t mean it’s a good strategy for a voter looking to elect the best possible leader of our country. In a 2010 Radio Podcast, Freakanomics author and host Stephen Dubner makes a case for the irrelevancy of the President to the broader economy. They argue essentially that the economy is too large and the President’s ability to really effect it is just too small.
I tend to agree they’re right – I’ve always believed that on economic issues, the President just doesn’t matter that much. A President’s vision and competence abroad, however, have a much more significant impact on the world and on the nation. A voter looking to make the best decision, then, should wait their choice accordingly.
The argument begins with the Constitution. Article II of the Constitution details the powers and responsibilities of the President – most of which have to do with foreign affairs. Most notably in his role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, but additionally with respect to negotiating treaties and receiving dignitaries, the President is clearly intended to be a one-stop shop for foreign policy. The judiciary has essentially zero role in foreign policy as envisioned by the Constitution, and the Court since that time has usually given broad deference to the Executive branch on matters of state.
Congress is given a role in foreign affairs, but usually only as a check – the President is generally free to do as he sees best, and then ask for permission later. Congress’ most potent weapon against a use of force is by control of the purse strings- the use of which requires them to defund deployed soldiers, a politically unacceptable decision. The President has his hand on the wheel and his foot on the accelerator – Congress pretty much only has a brake. President Obama’s actions in Libya have shown just how little Congress can do to impede a President’s decisions abroad.
In domestic affairs, on the other hand, the President is severely restricted in power – he can do essentially nothing without working hand in glove with Congress.
As an example, look at our last two Presidents and their two biggest Presidential acts – the Iraq invasion in 2003 and the Affordable Care Act/ObamaCare in 2009. The 2003 invasion was 100% the result of decisions made by President Bush – while he had to convince Congress to go along, it’s not a stretch to imagine that many other Presidents would have chosen differently – and of those that chose to invade, many other Presidents would have used a very different strategy to carry out the invasion and occupation. Congress’ opinion on the matter was a distant footnote. For better or worse, Iraq was Bush’s war, and was carried out pretty much according to his (or his advisor’s) designs.
President Obama’s health care reform, on the other hand, was the product of a thousand political compromises and Congressional negotiations. While it was certainly Obama’s decision to make health care reform a priority, the law that was actually passed was at most a dim expression of the law the Obama really wanted.
In my next post, I’ll look at what I think voters should look at when weighing candidates for their foreign policy ability. Voters concerned about making the best choice for the country should broaden their horizons and remember that while politics may stop at the water’s edge, that’s exactly where a President’s power to influence the world really begins.
I’ll caveat the post with my other, personal, reason to care about the President’s foreign policy – as an active duty Naval Officer, every four years 100 million people case votes to determine my next boss. When the Command in Chief decides to deploy someone somewhere, there’s a chance it could be me. The decision to “surge” in Iraq meant I would spend six months bobbing around on a ship in the Persian Gulf. So I have a direct personal interest in supporting the candidate who I believe will make the best use of our armed forces.