The president isn’t the problem — our expectations are

Gwen Henry | Cartoonist

By The Editorial Board

In seven months, Americans will flock to the polls in what appears to be take two of the 2020 presidential election. Grumbling and discontented, they will make a choice between one man whose mental and physical health is in question and another whose mugshot was circulating the internet just last year. Regardless of the side with which they ultimately align, many will probably say something about how the nation is “going to hell,” and some may even threaten to abandon the country entirely. After all, how can the United States survive with one of them in the Oval Office?

Welcome to America, where citizens think the president is a whole lot more important and influential than he actually is.

According to the Constitution, the president has a short list of enumerated powers. He serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, grants pardons and reprieves, makes treaties (with the advice and consent of the Senate), appoints judges and other public ministers (with the advice and consent of the Senate), gives state of the union addresses and vetoes legislation.

Of course, several of these are very influential. For example, serving as commander-in-chief is undoubtedly a monumental task during war, and appointing Supreme Court justices oftentimes tips the balance when it comes to hot-button cases that affect social policy.

However, the average citizen doesn’t seem to grasp that beyond these enumerated powers, the president is little more than a figurehead. Much to their chagrin, “single-handedly ensuring the holistic success of the United States while establishing an immaculate economy” is not in his job description — because it is, quite literally, in someone else’s.

The framers wrote the Constitution with the intent of Congress, not the president, becoming the dominant force. It declares war, makes laws, collects taxes and does practically everything people think of when it comes to governance. Perhaps that’s why Article I, which deals with Congress, is 2,267 words, while Article II, which deals with the president, is only 1,025 words.

Unfortunately, a misunderstanding like this one is to be expected when a society has the level of civic knowledge that Americans do. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, only 47% of adults can name all three branches of government, and 26% of adults cannot name a single one of the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment.

How can citizens possibly comprehend the role of the president if they are so blissfully unaware of the basic foundations of the government?

They can’t.

So, before we go off complaining about candidates and lamenting the fate of our nation, perhaps we should acquaint ourselves with what is actually at stake. It may come not only as a surprise but also as a comfort.

We should desire to have a moral, intelligent and confident person in the Oval Office. However, we should be realistic with our expectations. We are not going to have another George Washington or another Abraham Lincoln or another Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Quite frankly, we shouldn’t want to either. Have you ever noticed that our nation’s “greatest” presidents have been marked by times of utter uproar and even tragedy? One got us through the nation’s founding, another through the Civil War and the last through the Great Depression — all episodes that none of us wants to repeat.

So, stop thinking the president must be a mythical figure whose character, humility and competence surpass those of every living organism on Earth. The mere fact that public opinion polls of every administration are so poor and vary so greatly across time should signal that those expectations do not align with reality.

Maybe part of the problem lies with us and not with them. Start having grace for people who are willing to serve our country. Understand that the job is not as big as it seems and that nobody has to be perfect to get it done.

“We have created a sense of expectation in a job that’s already, some would argue, impossible,” Aaron David Miller, a U.S. diplomat who has served in four administrations, said in a PBS NewsHour interview. “Let’s just say it’s implausible, given the nature, the complexity of the presidency, the terrifying contingency about politics, so many factors beyond our control. And yet, we want to turn the president into a kind of combination between Harrison Ford in ‘Air Force One’ and Superman. And the reality is, we can’t have presidents like that anymore.”