My readers probably don’t believe the US President is “the leader of the free world” or even the CEO of the executive branch, who can just call up federal agencies and tell them what to do – as if he was FDR, or Stalin, or something.
The President is primarily an actor. His or her job is to read lines written by others. Only occasionally are they forced to improvise in debates. Elections still do matter, because public opinion matters. They are a unique way to measure public opinion as it concentrates and tries to think with its tiny, walnut-sized brain.
An election sends a message to every bureaucrat in Washington. Electing Hillary Clinton would mean: full steam ahead to the left. Electing Mr Trump means: be careful, the hicks in the sticks are starting to smell something – turn the heat down on the frog.
With Mr Trump’s appointment the progressive movement will be a little bit dispirited, and thus a little less tenacious in sniffing out and destroying its enemies. (For strategic reasons, I preferred Mrs Clinton because I want the heat turned up on the frog. But there’s also tactical reasons for wanting it turned down for the moment.)
A President is almost entirely ceremonial and cannot be described as managerial. The US President is sometimes called upon to decide disputes between competing members of his staff. That’s a bit more functional than, say, the Queen of England which is more advanced in its progressive loss of authority.
The primary question settled in an election is which party will control the organ of Washington called “the White House.” It’s true, the White House sometimes has a fair amount of military authority. In general, however, it is pretty much vestigial. If the White House disappeared tonight, Washington could go on with business as usual forever.
All this is so because the civil service must not be contaminated by politics. And in any serious conflict with a domestic government agency, the White House will lose. Public policy is business as usual. Politics is just PR drivel coming from the White House.
In Democratic administrations, the White House is friendly with every agency except the Pentagon, while the relationship with the latter is adversarial. In Republican administrations, it is the reverse. Mr Trump can block or frustrate agency initiatives. But he is never, ever in a position to make an agency do something it doesn’t want.
Elections also change public opinion. Or, to put it a different way, they are good indicators of future public opinion. The winners are happy, and grow stronger in their faith. While the losers feel on the losing side of history and waver.
So 51-49 or 49-51 is still an enormous difference. It decides whether the “centre” should, or should not, shift to the left. Or more precisely, how far it should shift to the left this year, because leftward is its general direction.
The basic error of democracy is to treat public opinion not just as sacred, but as always a cause and never an effect. Since the political system has an enormous power to change public opinion, we are looking at a feedback loop. If you think about the specific policy opinions held in 1916, you realise how far this feedback loop can drift.