I feel that I need to amend the sentiments that I expressed in my previous post, in which I may have misrepresented my actual view of the limits and scope of presidential power. My comments were, admittedly, a bit on the cynical side. I did not intend to diminish the power of the office of president but to contextualize it, for I think that we have a natural inclination to see the president as one imbued with powers greater than those actually at his disposal. I have often heard President Clinton, in interviews since his term in office, remark on the contrasts between the influence of a president compared with that of a former president. To paraphrase: As president you have great influence on a wide range of areas but you are subject to events, while as a former president you have a more narrow scope of influence but you are no longer at the whim of events out of your control. The "events" to which Clinton refers are those like the recent shooting at Virginia Tech or, more precisely, 9/11 -- events which one cannot plan for during the campaign and that redirect national attention and even legislative action.
This is beside the point that I am trying to make, but I just thought I'd throw it in there to give my previous post a little more substance.
Of course the president holds tremendous power and influence -- both those afforded to the office by Article II of the Constitution and those that have accrued over the centuries through judicial decree and legislative loopholes (i.e. The Patriot Act). These powers remain undisputed, but I believe that the most palpable aspect of presidential power, as it affects our everyday lives, is a president's influence on the terms of political and social debate. That is, the greater role of president is that of standard bearer -- our most recognizable ambassador to the world and the one American who most effectively can set the tone for their country. In this symbolic role I find the greatest source of hope every four years -- for each presidential election offers us the choice to select an individual who can shape the sentiments of a nation. A president can lift the masses from their apathetic stupor, engage every American and ignite in them a desire to join in our shared struggle to form that ever-ellusive goal of a more perfect union.
I would argue that the legislative achievments of a presidential term have a less tangible effect on Americans, as we go about our daily toil, than the overarching ethos of an administration. As I said earlier, President Kennedy was relatively ineffectual legislatively, but his too-short stint in office helped renew a sense of political engagement in the populous, a "New Frontier". It is the same with many of our beloved presidents, with Roosevelt's New Deal, Clinton's Bridge to the 21st Century, Johnson's Great Society. Buzzwords though they may be, these slogans and the men who voiced them gave the country more than just legislative action -- they instilled in Americans the belief that we are all part of Washington's "great experiment", all accountable for the future of our nation and instrumental in the shaping of its vision.
When I said that whomever we elect will most likely spend much of their time repairing what has been broken by their predecessor, I did not mean that their role in office will be that of a janitor, but that the processes by which they move our country forward will be more restorative than progressive, though it may feel more akin to the latter. My affinity for Senator Obama and my hopes for his securing the Democratic nomination rest on my belief that he can restore the tone of our national discourse, which as it is now in much need of repair. For many voting Americans (and I find this an unfortunate and sad reality) the decision they make in the voting booth is based not on the issues but on a sort of primal, instinctual inclination towards a particular candidate. If this be the case, then all I'm saying is that these voters select a candidate who can instill hope where there is now fear, unity and brotherhood in place of enmity and polarization. For at the very least, regardless of our next president's acumen for enacting laws and signing proclamations, we can as a country get back on the path from which we've strayed, and unite in our efforts to form that more perfect union.