Contrary to popular opinion, American presidential politics have always been rough-and-tumble, highly emotional affairs as far back as the election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the sitting president and vice president, who opposed each other in 1796 and 1800. Jefferson characterized President Adams as a “blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Adams and his followers, in turn, claimed Vice President Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, to be “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father” whose victory would lead to “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest being openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.” These attacks were possibly exaggerated – both men are ranked by historians and scholars in the top quartile of the 44 presidents to date.
Twenty years later, John Quincy Adams (the son of the second president and Jefferson’s opponent) vied for the office of president with Andrew Jackson, the military hero of the War of 1812, affectionately referred to as “Old Hickory” for his toughness and aggressiveness. Jackson was publicly accused of adultery and his wife a bigamist, while Adams was characterized as a “pimp” who had procured the services of a prostitute for the Czar of Russia while serving as ambassador. Adams was also charged with having a billiards table in the White House and using government funds to pay for it, a laughable offense by today’s standards.
In modern times, campaigns have become more sophisticated, but no less vicious. JFK was accused of being a puppet of the Catholic Pope, Bill Clinton a draft dodger, and George W. Bush the beneficiary of cronyism.
In view of the rancor and vitriol that has always been present in past presidential elections, it would not be surprising to find regional rebellions or even revolution following an election. And many have hyperbolized that the 2012 election is for the “soul” of the country and will set the direction of the nation for generations, ratcheting up the emotion and feeding the fears of the public in order to get them to the polls.
However, history has shown that in America, power has always been transferred peacefully from one presidential administration to the next without widespread disasters, economically, socially, or morally. In fact, newly elected presidents of both parties have generally served the country with competence, compassion, and even distinction.
Factors of a Presidential Election
The presidency of the United States is the most coveted political position in the modern world – perhaps the most powerful in the history of the world. The occupant of the White House influences the lives of people on a global scale, from remote villages in Africa, to trade conferences in Paris, Moscow, and Beijing.
Being nominated to run for the office requires years of personal achievement, incalculable political bargains, and culminates in an exhausting, brutal national campaign during which every moment of the candidates’ lives and the lives of their loved ones are scrutinized, publicized, and judged by a skeptical electorate.
Expenditures of billions, if not trillions, of dollars are affected by laws, rules, and regulations which may be eliminated, modified, or put into place after a presidential election. The decisions made by a president can make the stock market rise or fall by hundreds of points, and drive the fortunes of large companies in industries ranging from finance to agriculture.
The size of the prize incites powerful emotions in the contestants and their followers, which regularly leads to bitter divisions among the electorate since there is only one winner. As in most competitions, the intensity of rivalry between contestants and their supporters is directly correlated with the expected margin between victory and defeat.
Television political attacks ads, first appearing in American homes in the early 1950s, have become a critical element of every presidential campaign. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by both political parties and their surrogates to create exaggerated, misleading portraits of the rival candidate, the positions the candidate holds, and the dire consequences upon the country if elected.
Fact-checking has become big business, but is generally ignored by partisans, including Romney campaign executive Neil Newhouse (“We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers”) when questioned about an ad stating that President Obama has quietly announced plans to eliminate work and job training requirements for welfare beneficiaries. Votes, not facts nor truths, are important in presidential politics.
In recent years, presidential elections have been narrowly decided, with the country almost split down the middle by their choices. Some scholars believe that the narrow election of Lincoln led to the Civil War, while the animosity following George W. Bush’s close victories in 2000 and 2004 may preclude an impartial judgement of his presidency during his lifetime.
Whatever the outcome of this year’s election, one of every two voters is likely to be disappointed and convinced that the new president will lead the country to ruin and destruction.
The Realities of the President’s Power
Despite popular beliefs that a new president from the party opposite the incumbent’s will drastically change the lives of Americans, history presents a different scenario. The influence of any president, even one elected with his or her party in control of both houses of Congress, is diluted as a result of several factors:
- The Separation of Powers in Federal Government. Recognizing the temptation of unlimited power, the writers of the Constitution established the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, separate branches of government designed to offset and counterbalance the influence of each branch. As a consequence, massive change in national policies is difficult to implement from one administration to the next. While the branches of government typically unite in periods of national emergencies such as wars, terrorist events, and presidential assassinations, most changes in laws and regulations are incremental, the result of considerable compromise and political horse-trading.
- The Federal Bureaucracy. There are nearly three million employees working in more than 500 agencies, departments, and other organizations of the Federal Government, ranging from the department that ensures the safety of food and drugs, to the United States Postal Service. If the Federal Government were a private company, it would be the largest company and employer in the United States. In addition, most of the employees are members of the Federal Civil Service, which promotes considerable independence from presidential influence. As a result, presidential intentions are often blunted by inefficiency, inertia, and institutional reluctance by those who implement policies and regulations.
- Limited Term of the Office. Every four years, the country endures a presidential election. As a consequence, a sitting president or a new presidential candidate from the political party in power must come before the American public and justify the results and policies that have been in place. A candidate from the rival party simultaneously makes a case for a change in current policies. This short period of uninterrupted power between elections limits the scale of laws and policies that can be enacted during a single term or, if a president is reelected, two terms. For example, the regulations of President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act enacted in early 2010, the first major healthcare law since the establishment of Medicare almost 50 years ago, have yet to be fully written, interpreted, or put into place. It is highly likely that the act will be substantially amended or possibly repealed by a new Congress in 2013.
- Political Reality. Only one president since Lyndon Johnson has served with his political party in control of the Senate and House of Representatives during his term of office. Other than Jimmy Carter, who served a single term, no president has enjoyed more than a single two-year period where his party was the majority of Congress. Virtually every law is subject to negotiation, compromise, and amendment before reaching the president’s desk, ensuring that the legislation reflects the majority view of Americans, not the policies of a right- or left-wing fringe. The Constitution itself was the result of the “Great Compromise,” which created two houses in the legislature. Many believe that the recent unwillingness to compromise as demonstrated in the recent debate to raise the debt ceiling has made governing impossible.
One Country, One President
While disappointing to many supporters, most presidents move to the middle of the political spectrum after election despite contrary, often controversial positions that they may have espoused during their campaigns. The President represents all Americans, not only those who voted for him, and the country’s most effective leaders have been able to put together coalitions from both political parties to move centrist positions forward.
President Johnson, a conservative southern Democrat, overcame a filibuster by southern Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the help of liberal Republicans. Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican and outspoken Communist foe, was the first president to visit China, officially welcoming them into the “family of nations,” and was lauded by liberal Democrats. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, two presidents on different sides of the political spectrum, raised taxes during their terms and both cut spending in government programs that they believed to be wasteful or inefficient. Most of the men who have been elected to the office have grown into the job during their terms.
As Americans, we agree on more issues than we disagree. Our unwavering support of freedom, individual liberty and dignity, and equal opportunity are embedded into the bedrock of the nation. We are a nation of immigrants, not emigrants. While we castigate our fellow citizens every four years in a frenzy of political catharsis, Americans of all political persuasions share their love for country, their appreciation for the good fortune of all, and a hope for our children’s continued privilege.
Each of us owes a debt of gratitude to any person, man or woman, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, willing to shoulder the burden of leadership in these uncertain, often dangerous times. We should take comfort that our leaders more often than not exceed our expectations despite personal attacks, relentless opposition, and even violent demonstrations. We should also be gratified that our system of government protects us from zealots by limiting their power through a system of checks and balances.
Do you believe your life changes significantly under a president from either party? Is dramatic change possible in a nation of majority rule and minority rights?