If you believe what the respective presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are saying, the difference between a Romney administration and an Obama administration over the next four years would be monumental. And in a few areas that may be true. But the difference in overall impact on the average American between four years of President Romney and four more years of President Obama will, in truth, be relatively slight.
The basis for that perhaps surprising statement is the core philosophies of the two men. Hard core conservatives may view Obama as the closest thing to a socialist the country has ever had in the Oval Office, but he is, in fact, essentially a moderate liberal, probably not too far to the left (if at all) of Bill Clinton, who was also reviled during his presidency by the most partisan Republicans.
Romney is, admittedly, a little more difficult to peg, largely because he has “adjusted” his views over the years. But if the Republican primary season revealed anything, it was that hard core conservatives don’t have a lot of philosophical confidence in Romney. And the reason for that view, notwithstanding his selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, is that he is essentially a moderate conservative, probably not too far to the right (if at all) of the first President Bush, who, while not reviled by the most partisan Democrats, was incorrectly viewed as a Reagan clone.
To get a sense of the degree of difference between the political philosophies of the two men, consider where they would be placed on a continuum that runs from zero to ten, with zero being the most conservative possible rating a presidential candidate could have and ten being the most liberal one a presidential candidate could have. (I omit here the political philosophies of individuals who would never be nominated by their respective parties, e.g., a John Birch Society member by the Republicans and an avowed Socialist by the Democrats.)
On that scale, a zero might be assigned to a candidate with the economic views of Ron Paul and the foreign policy views of Dick Cheney. A ten would be represented by the overall political views of Dennis Kucinich or Bernie Sanders. In fact, those politicians are not nearly as extreme as some in America on both sides of the spectrum are, but they are as extreme as a politician can be who would hope to have any chance of securing the presidential nomination of the respective parties of the right and the left.
On a continuum with those parameters, Mitt Romney would fall somewhere around a 4 (at worst, from a liberal’s perspective, maybe down to a 3), and Barack Obama falls somewhere around a 6 (at worst, from a conservatives’ perspective, maybe up to a 7).
So, to address the question I raised at the outset, what’s the difference in real terms between a 4 and a 6 (or, at worst, between a 3 and a 7)?
Well, first, let’s understand that—again, political rhetoric notwithstanding—the differences between the two possible administrations (Romney’s and Obama’s) on foreign policy matters would be almost non-existent.
Despite his embarrassingly inappropriate receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, Barack Obama is about as aligned with the Kissinger-Reagan-Bush view of America’s place in the world as Mitt Romney would likely be. Both men are internationalists in their worldview, and both men are committed to maintaining America’s pre-eminent position as the world’s sole military super-power. Both men also believe in what they would regard as the prudent use of military power to further U.S. interests, and neither would shy away from committing the country to military conflicts if they believed the circumstances (a complicated calculus to be sure) justified it.
Moreover, both believe that the United States must maintain its position as the primary economic engine for the world economy. They are both free-trade proponents, but neither will shy away from protectionist tactics to overcome tariffs and other protectionist moves by trading partners. And both will use the power of the American banking system (and its related economic levers) to control foreign markets to the greatest extent possible.
In other words, neither Obama nor Romney is a disciple of Noam Chomsky or the aforementioned Dennis Kucinich. And any differences in their foreign policies would be evident, if at all, only at the margins (where, for example, Romney might keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan for an extra year beyond Obama’s announced 2014 withdrawal date).
They would differ more definitively on domestic economic matters, but even here, the differences would not be as great as the rhetoric might suggest.
Obama, for all the claims that he is a closet socialist, is a garden variety Keynesian. His use of stimulus to keep the economy from going into free-fall was hardly a radical move, and his attitude on taxes has been to keep them low during an economic downturn—all classic Keynesian stuff.
And Romney, for all his attempts to sound like a disciple of the Milton Friedman Chicago School, will be much more likely to adopt a mix-and-match, do-what-works approach that will favor stimulus when the private sector is sluggish. He has hinted at as much in a few comments on the campaign trail and most assuredly would not have let the auto industry collapse had he been president in ’09 (despite his proclaimed position to the contrary at the time).
The candidates’ differences on taxes are also not as great as they might try to make them sound on the campaign stump. Both will eagerly support extension of the Bush tax cuts for almost everyone. Obama will try to sound like a populist in urging their repeal for the top one or two percent of income earners, while Romney will insist that they stay in place for everyone. Either way, the impact on most Americans will be non-existent.
So, with so little to differentiate what the outlines of their respective administrations would look like, does it matter which one of these men is elected in November?
The answer, despite everything I’ve just said, is yes.
Here are three reasons why that is so:
1. The Supreme Court – This one, despite its pre-eminent importance, is constantly overlooked by both the mainstream media and the public at large. The Supreme Court is the potential arbiter of every law, every regulation, and every policy undertaken by any aspect of American society. It has that responsibility and role in the country’s Constitution (and by historical tradition), and the political makeup of the Court very much controls its decisions.
We need look back no farther than the 2000 presidential election to see how significant the composition of the Court can be in controlling the direction of the country. Many conservative pundits argue that even if the 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore had gone the other way, the election would still have ended up with Bush as the elected president. They point to later re-counts (conducted by a conglomerate of news organizations) that found that even with the most aggressive “chad-counting” procedure (remember the hanging chad controversy?) Bush would have won the Florida vote.
But that fact, even assuming that the unofficial recount of all cast ballots was accurate, ignores a more fundamental decision that the Court made in 2000. That decision was whether to take on the appeal at all. Recall that the case only got to the Supreme Court because the Bush side argued that state law was pre-empted by federal law as regards how the election in Florida should have been decided.
If the Court had voted against hearing the case in the first place, the decision of the Florida Supreme Court would have controlled the result, and that decision weighed heavily in Gore’s favor (which is why the Bush side appealed it in the first place).
But even apart from that momentous, history-changing case, the Supreme Court controls so much of the long-term future of the country that ignoring the power of the president to nominate the men and women who will make those decisions is ignorant and foolhardy.
In the next four years, as many as four of the current Court members –Ginsburg, Breyer, Kennedy and Scalia (all now in their seventies) — could retire. A swing of one vote on the Court could change the course of the country for decades. That fact alone is enough to establish why who gets elected president matters.
2. The administrative agencies – By appointing the heads of these agencies, presidents exercise tremendous control over the way the laws of the country are implemented and effectuated.
The reality is that once a law is passed by Congress, the elected representatives who voted for it essentially lose control of it. And because so many laws are the product of compromise, they are often written in deliberately vague and ambiguous terms. Hence, it falls to the administrative agencies to interpret how those laws will be carried out, and those decisions are made by people selected by the president’s appointees.
Thus, for example, Congress passed the Environmental Protection Act in 1969. At the same time the president established the Environmental Protection Agency, which was then approved by Congress. As a result of the Act and the establishment of the Agency, numerous administrative agencies were created to regulate the various laws enacted by Congress (among those are the Clean Air and Clean Water laws, passed in 1970 and 1972 respectively). These laws are enforced by agency officials who are appointed by cabinet or sub-cabinet officers who are selected by the president.
Thus, a president who wants loose regulation of business and industry might select men and women to choose the administrators in those agencies who will be less rigid in enforcing the laws, while a president more concerned with environmental degradation might select officials similarly oriented.
There are hundreds of agencies in the federal government that are largely unsupervised in their enforcement of federal laws. They are the real power the executive branch of government has in controlling the way the laws of the country are interpreted and enforced.
3. The mood of the country – In 1960, the election of John F. Kennedy changed the mood of the country immeasurably. The same might be said of the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In both instances, the nation’s populace had grown complacent if not depressed. Jimmy Carter, whom Reagan defeated, called it a “malaise.”
A president can represent a vision or project an image that the people of the country can either identify with or reject. Kennedy’s vision was of a Camelot in our lifetime. Reagan’s was of a “shining city on a hill.”
These expressions were nothing more than metaphors intended to create in the American people a rejuvenated spirit and a hope that better days were ahead, but in both instances they rallied the populace and, momentarily at least, kept the country moving forward.
The country is currently in a time of crisis, largely caused by partisan gridlock and a lethargic economy. Whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is elected won’t automatically solve those problems, but the vision and image the elected president gives to the country can change its mood for the better or for the worse.
Thus, even though which candidate gets elected might not seem to matter to most Americans, in terms of the overall impact the president can have over the country, it should and it does.