What do Americans choose when we elect a president? Will we, in six days, vote for a set of guiding principles and policies, along with the judgment capacities of the people who will implement them? Will we vote for the two people we like best? Are we choosing America’s hockey-mom-in-chief?
A portion of voters will doubtless base their vote on each of these criteria. Others will go to the polls or fill out their absentee ballots in favor of the guy or gal with whom they most want to have a beer, or that guy who isn’t the black guy, or that guy who isn’t the really, really old guy. Some voters won’t make it past Barack Obama’s middle name before pulling the lever the other way.
The infinitesimal possibility that a single vote will influence the election — and the corresponding argument that voting is irrational if a person votes for the sole purpose of affecting the result — makes it seem silly to write anything about how to choose a candidate. But every four years, the media runs stories about people who have voted one party all their lives, and they still believe strongly in everything that party stands for, but they just feel such a connection with the other party’s nominee that they have to cross the aisle just this once.
The presidency is too important an office to be filled by a charismatic dunce who hasn’t the faintest idea what’s going on but whose down-home charm was sufficient to convince a bunch of citizens to vote against their beliefs. Article II of the Constitution doesn’t do justice to the modern presidency. The next person in the Oval Office will be much more than commander-in-chief, the brain behind a veto pen and an appointer of ambassadors.
When we elect a president, we pick a person who will be directly or indirectly responsible for staffing Washington’s massive executive bureaucracy: the Treasury Department (responsible for handing out $700 billion to the financial industry in the coming months), the State Department and regulatory agencies like the FDA and the EPA. We choose the person who will make lifetime appointments not only to the Supreme Court — which, according to a op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal by Northwestern law professor Steven Calabresi ‘80, could see as many as six vacancies in the next eight years — but also to the circuit courts responsible for producing far more decisions annually than the high court. To be sure, the Senate’s “advice and consent” would be more of a hindrance to President John McCain’s judicial agenda than to President Obama’s, but eight years of Bush have left us a right-leaning crowd of judges on the circuit courts and a young conservative bloc arrayed against aging liberals on the Supreme Court.
Today’s president appoints the lawyers who staff the Office of Legal Counsel, a little-known group that, as Jane Meyer shows in “The Dark Side,” has quietly and successfully allowed the executive to ignore congressional edicts regarding torture. And his principles permeate every office under the control of the executive branch, from Justice to Homeland Security.
Over 18 months of campaigning, Obama and McCain have taken wildly different positions on important issues. And yet the waning days of this campaign have been consumed by discussions of Obama’s long-distant semi-associates, by Sarah Palin’s wardrobe and by a despicable hoax in Pittsburgh. Generally, such stories are accompanied by some lame attempt to make them relevant. (Memo to America: Bill Ayres will not be Obama’s Education Secretary, and Jeremiah Wright will not be stepping in at Health and Human Services). Each only serves to obscure the process behind a momentous decision: who should be the most powerful person in the free world?
Both Obama and McCain have given the American people enough information to make a decision without asking us to imagine some hypothetical shared drink in the Oval Office or calling on us to imagine their running mates at a youth hockey game. We know — or have available to us — everything we need to know. There’s simply no reason to ignore this information.
Xan White is a senior in Pierson College.