Are you being realistic when you think that President Kerry is going to defeat the terrorists and the peace-at-any-price wing of the Democratic Party?
The impression I get from most of my friends (from either side) is that they seem to see the presidency as a sort of disguised dictatorship. Sure, there's this congress over there causing trouble and there's these supreme court people dressing funny and making weird decisions, but the man sitting in the Oval Office is where the real action is. Right?
Wrong. The structure of our government makes our president one of the weakest heads of state of any modern country. He can't do anything, anything, without the approval of someone else. He can't introduce legislation without someone else's help. He can't make treaties without someone else's OK. He can't even hire his own staff without a green light from other people. It's the ultimate "mother may I?" position.
Even aside from that structural weakness, the job itself has been utterly impossible for one person to manage, even from the very beginning. From Washington to Jackson to Grant to Johnson to Bush the ultimate success or failure of a presidency lies not in the man, but in the people around him.
Let's take another tack for a second. We are a nation of 280 million people, and, as the old commercial jingle goes, "no two are quite the same". A large number of us are completely unreasonable when it comes to things we care about. You literally can't talk us out of certain things, and sometimes one set will completely conflict with the other. It's a country of titanic complexity, with trillions of data points making it up. If a president really were the ultimate "person in charge" in the manner most of my friends seem to think, he'd have to hold all that in his head and balance it all against itself and then come out with an answer.
It can't be done, which is why people who excoriate candidates based on their perceived intelligence are missing the point. You can't know everything about this job, it's utterly useless to even try. It would be worse than trying to drink from a fire hose. It would be like trying to drink from a fire hose that's connected to a pump at the bottom of the ocean.
Which is why a president has a "cabinet". It's these people, who advise the president and carry out his instructions, who are critically important. Even they are not where the real power resides. That lies several layers deeper, in the inscrutable beuracracies that fill the nooks and crannies of the government itself. But the secretaries are in control, however nominally, and it is they who set the tone, they who hire and fire, and they who control what the president even sees, let alone decides on.
When it all works properly, when the people the president surrounds himself with can get questions answered correctly, the presidency can indeed be a powerful force, and the country can succeed because of it. But when it doesn't, that power curdles and curls in on itself, and dangerous forces are unleashed that can, and have, threatened to pull the entire place down.
This is why it's more important for a president to be decisive than it is for him to be knowledgeable. This is why ideology matters. This is why parties count. Because a candidate can be as neutral as he or she wants, but a president must pick from the faithful for his advisors.
With one notable exception, I happen to agree with all of Bush's picks. I think the people around him have done a bang-up job, all things considered. This is one of the reasons I support him for re-election. I appose Kerry because I think he'll surround himself with the wrong people with the wrong ideas, and that this will be bad for the country. You can (usually do) disagree. But in the disagreeing, you don't seem to be paying attention to what your candidate really stands for. You're not missing the forest because of all the trees, you're deciding a single tree is the forest.
And, to be blunt, I think far too many of you have decided you're standing in a hardwood forest because of a single oak tree some enterprising farmers have planted in their piney woods.
Original essay via On the Third Hand.