when a promise isn’t a promise

When I am elected president, I will eliminate speeding tickets and instead impose heavy fines on people who do not use their turn signals. I will build a collection of pyramids in Nevada desert in order to demonstrate American Exceptionalism.  All cars will be able to run on expired grocery products within a year of my inauguration. And college basketball players (male and female) will play all championship games shirtless. This is my campaign promise.

Now, just off the top of your head: how many of those things are things that a president can actually do?

If you guessed “none of them,” you are completely correct. A president cannot make direct changes to any laws, because he is an executive, not a legislator. If you think back to high school, you will remember this thing that we have in this country called “separation of powers”: congress makes laws, the executive branch (which is headed by the President) enforces them. Now, by tradition, the President can suggest laws. He can advocate certain policies. But any President (or candidate for that office) who says “I will change such-and-such law!” is absolutely and completely 100% lying to you.

I’m getting all italics-y and boldface-y on that point because, in the current political climate, this is a point that seems to have been forgotten not only by the candidates themselves, but by the people and the media and most of the “commentators” on such things. Michelle Bachmann has claimed that a fence between the United States and Mexico will be built within the first year of her term if she is elected.  But that is not something that a president can do. (I suppose, unless she wants to do the construction work herself, and pay for the materials out of her own pocket. And honest to God, if that is what she is really promising, I will totally vote for her just to see her out there in the Arizona desert doing that work.) She also promised that gas would be $2 per gallon, even though the President does not and can not dictate gasoline prices. (Ironically, the type of political system in which the government can set the prices of products, as all educated people know, is called “socialism.” Why has nobody called out Bachmann for her socialist energy policies?) Herman Cain promised to overturn Supreme Court decisions that didn’t go his way, and Rick Perry promised to cut Congress’s pay. None of these are things that presidents have the power to do.

If we interpret their words generously (…very generously, in some cases…) we can say something like this: “What they really meant, was not that they would do it directly, but that they would indirectly cause these things to happen as a result of their policies and advocacy efforts.” Seen this way, these are not “promises” so much as “predictions”. What they should have said is not “I promise” or “I will”, but rather: “I predict that when I am president, this will happen… and it will in some way have been influenced by things that I’ve done.”

Of course, that doesn’t sound as cool coming from behind the podium.

Our current President, Obama, has been relatively good on this point. He tends to use phrases like “I will push for…” or “I will advocate…” rather than “I will do.”  I think he may have learned from his big “I will close Guantanamo Bay” mistake…. which is also something that, as he learned, Presidents do not have the power to do.

Although this may seem like a “nit picking about words” point to some, I think it is an important point that voters in this country would do well to pay more attention to. Every time a candidate says, “If I am President, your boss will give you a pony that farts glitter,” (or whatever), instead of deciding that you like that candidate because you would like a pony that farts glitter, ask yourself instead: “Is that something the president actually has the power to do?”

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  1. Buck Field says:

    As commander in chief, what would prevent the Prez from ordering his subordinates out of GITMO?

    • Greg Stevens says:

      The president actually did issue an executive order, in his first year, to initiate the process of closing Guantanamo Bay.

      But on May 20, 2009, as part of a war-funding request, the Senate voted 90 to 6 against appropriating $80 million to close Guantanamo. The Justice Department lawyer heading the task force said that based on the evidence, only about 20 Guantanamo detainees could be prosecuted through normal court procedures. And congressmen all over the country said they wouldn’t take detainees in their states or districts.

      If being President was like being King, or like being CEO of a company, then he could have said, “Suck it up and do it.” But (fortunately or not), the President doesn’t have unlimited power. An executive order only gets you so far. Without money to enact the change, a legal process to deal with the people, or a place to put them, it couldn’t happen.

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