The peculiar feature of American government

I have been thinking recently about how it is that people can blame a President for our economic woes. People do this all the time of course, and there is a considerable amount of academic literature that says that a President’s re-election is almost entirely dependent on economic performance during his term. Despite this fact, a President’s ability to affect the economy is very small.

This is how its supposed to work:

  1. The people elect politicians to represent them.
  2. Those politicians then implement their economic vision.
  3. After a few years, the ruling politicians face re-election where people either re-elect them or fire them, based on how their economic policies worked.

If step #2 never happens, then does step #3 make any sense?

For instance, right now people (like me) are urging the government to do something, anything to promote job growth in America. However, the President has little power to increase or decrease jobs on his own. The power of the purse lies with Congress. The President has some influence over Congress, but not as much as people think. If Congress doesn’t want to promote job growth, the President can’t make them.

I’ll use President Obama as an example (the parties could easily be reversed and the same dynamic hold true, however). Even when the Democrats had unprecedented majorities in both houses of Congress, Obama needed the help of Republicans to pass the financial reform bill, the stimulus package, and to repeal DADT. Even though many of them had previously supported health care reform and efforts like it, all Republicans opposed the Democrats’ bill because doing so would weaken the President. The weird thing about American politics is that the President almost always needs the support of the opposing party to get anything done. (you can also substitute the examples of Bush’s tax cuts, the Iraq War and Social Security privatization)

This is a problem. We elect our leaders to lead and we judge them on their accomplishments. But the President, even when his party controls both houses of Congress, cannot accomplish anything without help from the other side. Right now, people blame the President because the economy is weak. Well, the President might like to pass another stimulus package, because  it is now clear his first one was too small. Unfortunately, he cannot do that because he will not get Republicans to support him. How then can the public judge the President’s economic record if he never gets a chance to fully implement his economic policies? (steps #2 and #3, above)

In American politics, the President needs Republican support to fulfill his campaign pledges. How ironic is that? Republicans who campaign against almost everything the President says must vote for the President’s policies in order for them to become law! The President has an interest in compromising with the other side. However, the other side has no interest in compromising. It has an interest in the President’s failure. If the Obama can’t accomplish anything, he looks weak and like a promise-breaker and the Republicans win in the next election. Democrats need Republicans to govern, but if Democrats can’t govern, then Republicans gain. You see the contradiction there?

This wasn’t such a problem before extreme partisanship, the filibuster and national campaigns became the norm, but now what Republican has an interest in making the President look good?

The peculiar feature of American government then, is that we elect politicians to lead and expect them to perform well, but our governmental structure does not give them the power to do so.

The million dollar question is: if the President has an interest in strong economic growth over the next year (strong growth means he will be re-elected), doesn’t that mean that the Republican Party has an interest in sabotaging the economy over the next year? Then once they win, won’t Democrats have an interest in sabotaging growth so that they can win the next election? If I’m right (and please point it out if you think I’m wrong)  then something is very, very wrong with our governmental system. A system that gives a party both the incentive and the ability to sabotage the economy seems bound for self-destruction.

Coming up soon: how to fix it.

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    • Mike Mann
    • September 1st, 2011

    I agree with your thoughts. Literally found your post while searching for “could the American government work without democrats and republicans?”

    I hate our government for the facts you mentioned. Nothing ever gets done. Everyone is so busy finger pionting and blaming that our country can’t change or grow. Even the best ideas get tossed before they ever hit the voting floor just because that person on the other side thought of it. I personally didn’t like Bush very much, but I loved his idea about being able to privatize a portion of our Social Security. For me, at my age, it made better financial sense. But that got thrown out the door because it was his idea and for some reason no one can change that failing system.

    My question is, Can the government exist without the classification of democrats and republicans? From what I’ve read so far I think it could. Maybe that would create the balance that we need so people don’t jump the gun on new ideas. Just because you don’t agree with ALL of a person’s ideas, doesn’t mean they won’t come up with something great once in a while.

  1. I’m glad you like it and agree. In my opinion, it might be technically possible for our system to work without organized political parties, but its not terribly realistic to expect that to happen. Obviously, Democrats and Republicans have a stranglehold on politics and that’s not likely to change. On another level, every single democracy in the world has political parties, so that tells me that political parties are just something that goes hand-in-hand with our system of government.

    What doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with democracy is dysfunction and partisanship. Our system functioned well with 2 parties for nearly 200 years because they worked together (usually) and the system let things get done. If you’re interested, I’ve drawn up a list of reforms that I think will make our system work better and reduce partisanship and political parties’ influence. All these reforms have precedent in American politics, so its possible that they could be revived or expanded today. The first article is below and there is a link in the first paragraph that leads to the second article:

    https://howdemocracyworks.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/how-to-fix-congress-the-list/

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