News Archive

VP of Academic Affairs Offers Political Commentary

Dennis Stevens provides insight on elections and political power

10/6/2008 9:09:07 AM


Dennis Stevens, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College

The following commentary was written by Dennis Stevens, vice president for academic affairs and dean of Randolph College for the Lynchburg News & Advance . It is reprinted with permission.

By Dennis Stevens
Published: October 5, 2008

Every four years it happens. Presidential candidates from both major parties (not to mention the many minor parties) promise to solve our social, political, and economic problems. Whether the promises are sincere or insincere doesn’t matter. The fact is that they won’t be able to deliver, for one very simple reason: the American presidency doesn’t have the power to address most of these problems.

We tend to focus on the presidency because it is easier to comprehend than Congress. Most of us like to think of the president as the one who is “in charge” of the government, not just as one person in a necessarily complicated system in which Congress makes many of the important decisions.

Both John McCain and Barack Obama are promising to change Washington. In a recent speech about the crisis on Wall Street, McCain said that the problems we are facing are the result of a “culture of lobbying and influence peddling” and that “we have got to fix it.” And Obama said in a major speech on the economy that “we need a shift in the culture of our financial institutions.” Both may be right, but their proposals for change are only that: proposals. As the recent negotiations over the bailout have emphasized, Congress is the place where policy on the economy is made.

When President Bush recently proposed a $700 billion bailout for failing financial firms, it seemed to many that the president was acting to solve our economic problems, but then it became clear that Congress had its own ideas about what should be in the proposal. Questions about the president’s plan were raised. Did it essentially give Treasury Secretary Paulson a “blank check?” Should provisions be included to limit the pay of executives who might benefit from the bailout? Should mortgage help for homeowners be included? The president can open up a discussion and play a role in what happens, but Congress has, as James Madison called it, the “power of the purse.”

Both candidates have strong views about other issues, such as immigration and social security, but there is one real question: what will Congress do about these things? Our form of government, with its many checks and balances, is designed so that the president has very little control over most of the issues that touch us day by day. The president may, if he or she chooses, propose anything to Congress, but it is up to Congress to take action, and it must do so in a way that is acceptable to its constituents.

But the relative weakness of the presidency is actually a good thing. Our Founders were wise to limit the power of the presidency. If it really had the power to solve all of our problems, it would also have the power to cause much more harm than it can actually cause. Our Constitution is instructive here.

The president’s main powers are in two areas: foreign affairs and the power to nominate people to the Supreme Court and other federal courts.

So when we go to the polls in November it is best to set aside the long list of presidential promises. When we cast our votes for president, we should choose the candidate who is strongest on these two issues, and when we vote for our national Representatives and Senators, we should be sure that they are ready to work on everything else.

Stevens is the vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at Randolph College. He has a Ph.D. in political science and has published two boo

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CONTACT: Brenda Edson, Director of College Relations