Election cycle creates unrealistic expectations for the presidency

The next president doesn't have the power to unilaterally solve all the problems we expect of him or her.

For political junkies, the never-ending, non-stop presidential campaign is a dream come true. There's always a new poll to read about, a debate to watch, a primary or caucus result to follow. There may be moments of regret — like when you wake up the next morning after staying up until 2 a.m. to watch votes get reported — but it's also a lot of fun.

For most people, however, the unending campaign is too much. It goes on too long, and becomes something simply to be tuned out. Even for those of us who enjoy following the election and don't mind the prospect of another nine months of this, there can be serious downsides. Media coverage can focus on the "horse race" — who's up, who's down, who has momentum, who is not (in some journalist's view) sufficiently in the mainstream. None of this is substantive, and it can make following the election more like watching a soap opera than witnessing a meaningful policy debate. In addition, throughout this non-stop campaign, candidates have to constantly worry they will make some gaffe (real or imagined) that could topple their candidacy (witness coverage of Jeb Bush's request that a town hall audience "please clap" for him).

Perhaps the biggest problem associated with a nearly two-year-long presidential campaign receiving constant media attention is that it creates the incorrect perception that whoever wins should and will have the power to unilaterally solve a host of difficult problems, some of which have little to do with the presidency or even the federal government.

At CNN's Democratic town hall event in New Hampshire recently, one voter asked Hillary Clinton what leadership she could offer when it comes to end-of-life decisions for people with terminal illness. The voter, a man with terminal colon cancer, was articulate and moving. But it is hard to say how any president could have much to offer on this issue, which is largely a matter of state law. Another voter asked Ms. Clinton if she could assure him that, as president, she would not expand U.S. military involvement abroad. The premise of the question (and of Hillary Clinton's response that she could not provide blanket assurance on this point) is that the decision whether to use military force is for the president alone to make. It may seem that way sometimes, as presidents since Truman (including Mr. Obama) have often unilaterally ordered military action abroad without congressional approval. But the Constitution says otherwise. Outside of the limited emergency context when the United States is attacked (or facing imminent attack) and there is no time to consult Congress, legislative approval for the use of military force is a constitutional necessity. ISIS and others threats are of course serious matters, but they cannot and should not be problems any president takes on alone.

With presidential candidates all over the Internet, television screens and the front pages of newspapers, it can be easy to forget that the president is just part of a constitutional government. No president can or should have the authority to resolve all problems, large and small. After Donald Trump came in second in the Iowa caucuses, one of his supporters said "it's just heartbreaking, he really wanted to make America great again." (That supporter is presumably heartened by Tuesday's New Hampshire results). None of the presidential candidates has it in his or her power to deliver on a promise like this (assuming it even accurately describes reality — in other words, that America needs to be restored to a greatness that has been lost). By placing so much hope in the next president, we're giving up our responsibility as citizens. Voting is an essential part of democracy, but civic responsibility does not end on Election Day. The real lesson of this long campaign may be that voters have to insist on holding the president and other elected officials accountable after the election is over. The seemingly interminable campaign may make most of us eager for an end point, but the better approach would be to save some of our energy for the days after the election.

Chris Edelson (edelson@american.edu) is an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. His book, "Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security," will be published in spring 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

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