Barring a surprise at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland later this month, the race for the presidency is set. So this seems a good time to step back and consider just what it is that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are fighting about.
I don’t mean where they stand on the issues, or whose vision is more compelling. I mean the office itself. The modern presidency is unique, and it’s worth understanding what’s at stake as you watch these two people campaign for it.
As Americans we have an odd attitude toward the presidency. On the one hand, we’re leery of executive power, and often of the government the President symbolizes. Yet we’re also fascinated by the person who holds the office. And it’s not just Americans. Anywhere you travel, you’ll find people who are curious about the most visible American on the planet.
This is with good reason. Presidents control the political agenda in this country. They formulate the budget, set defense and foreign policy, develop the initiatives that drive domestic affairs, and create the contours of public debate. Congress, by contrast, reacts. And presidents of both parties have worked hard to expand their power, to the point where the President now stands at the center of government.
The job has always carried with it great responsibility, but the weight of the modern presidency is overwhelming. In a representative democracy, the ultimate power may lie with the voters, but every tough problem this nation faces percolates up to the President; if it were easily solvable, someone else would have taken care of it.
No president ever lives up to the expectations people have for him — presidents make mistakes both large and small, and their power is not limitless. But the balance of it in this country is unquestionably tilted in the direction of the White House, and that is not going to change.
So the question about the presidency that concerns me is how to hold the president accountable. He or she needs to be scrutinized, challenged, and held answerable to Congress and the public for his or her policies. There are today only rare opportunities for the vigorous give and take and close examination of a president that our system once provided. But how long can that continue before we cease to be a true representative democracy?
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.