When friends and family ask me who they should support for president, I always give them some variation of this advice: lower your expectations—and remember that foreign policy matters most.
Some of this is personal preference. I gladly cop to being a cynical libertarian, so I tend to take a dim view of the idea that any one president can produce positive change, no matter how grand his promises on the campaign trail may be. I also happen to be more interested in matters of war and peace than domestic policy, so for me foreign policy is a top-tier concern when evaluating any candidate.
But personal preference aside, this advice is still important because it’s a key reality check.
You see, campaign season is all about promises. Desperate to snag media attention and voter support, presidential candidates often pledge the moon, twice over.
“I’ll end unemployment.”
“I’ll balance the budget.”
“I’ll bring the troops home.”
“I’ll provide you with health care.”
“I’ll make America great again.”
As easy as it is to catch election fever, at some point the fever has to break, cooled by the recognition that even a perfect president can’t make all this stuff happen. Maybe it would be possible if we were electing a dictator, but in America—as much as I’ve been known to complain about the growth of executive power—that’s not how our government works.
Yes, presidents can change some things. For instance, Republican candidates of all stripes have made repealing President Obama’s unconstitutional executive orders (usually “on day one”) a regular talking point this year. That’s a promise these candidates can keep if they’re elected, and it’s a good one.
But there’s also a lot that presidents can’t change by themselves. Getting the government’s fiscal house in order is a tough job without the cooperation of Congress, because the House holds the power of the purse. Promises about student loans or health care programs also need congressional cooperation, because the executive branch can’t make law (granted, Obama certainly seems to be trying his hardest).
Other promises sound awesome but don’t correspond to any concrete presidential power at all. There’s no way for a president to guarantee that he can improve the jobs market, affect gas prices, or—especially—make America great.
In short, as George Friedman wrote during the 2012 election, “The American presidency is designed to disappoint.” Though candidates like to spin wild fantasies of erasing their predecessors’ failings, in practice, “What the winner actually can deliver depends upon what other institutions, nations and reality will allow him.”
You may have noticed one of those sample campaign promises is not like the others: “I’ll bring the troops home.”
It’s different because it involves foreign policy.
Of course, the president faces restraints in foreign policy, too. He has to wrangle with public opinion, budget allocations from Congress, and whatever mess his predecessor might leave. He’s not supposed to be able to start a war without a congressional declaration.
Still, when a president comes into office with multiple wars already going—as whoever gets sworn in next year undoubtedly will—his ability to make real changes expands dramatically.
If he says he’ll stop drone warfare, he can do that.
If he says he won’t assassinate American teenagers without charge or trial, he can do that.
If he says he’ll pursue a foreign policy that doesn’t make more enemies than it kills, he can do that.
If he says he’s going to bring the troops home, he can do that, too.
The president’s power as commander in chief is more than just an exciting title. It’s a constitutional authority that gives him significant leeway to make real changes in foreign policy, to legally act in ways he can’t in the domestic arena.
And that’s why foreign policy matters most.
That tax plan a candidate is touting, that health care overhaul that sounds so exciting, that campaign slogan with all the right buzzwords—sure, some of it could pan out, but realistically Congress, the Supreme Court, and other grim political realities will get in the way.
There’s plenty of cause for pessimism in foreign policy reform, too, but there’s also at least a chance the promises a candidate makes can actually be delivered. That’s why we need to make sure our next president is making the right promises.