Electing a president every four years is one of America’s most basic democratic rituals. Complaining about the candidates is as much a part of this ritual as pulling a lever — or pressing a button — in a voting booth. Presidential campaigns seem to bring out the worst in all of us: empty promises, simplistic policy statements, personal attacks and all of those wonderful negative advertisements. In our current moment, the ugly elements of presidential campaigning are perhaps more evident than ever before.
There is, however, a pattern to elections. Every four years, especially when an incumbent president is at the end of his second term, the race for the nation’s highest office becomes a contest to show which candidate can correct for the current president’s limitations. A competent and careful president — like George H.W. Bush — inspired opponents — especially Bill Clinton — who promised vision, energy and even a little risk-taking. Eight years of Clinton encouraged voters to turn to a disciplined, pious, and predictable successor: George W. Bush. Bush, of course, made Obama possible – a cerebral, pragmatic outsider who was the perfect anti-Bush.
The shifts in style hide the continuities in policy. Every president elected since 1988 has invested in economic growth by opening new markets, encouraging free trade, and keeping taxes low. Every president since 1988 has pursued an expansive foreign policy, including sanctions against “rogue regimes” and new deployments of American soldiers and sailors to distant societies. For all the partisan rancor, there has been little change in key domestic and foreign policies from one presidential administration to another.
We elect presidents on style, but they govern on substance. Unfortunately, the winning style is often not the right substance. Most presidents struggle in their first year to adjust from campaign mode to governing, which involves a major shift in focus. Generally, the policies in place have a logic and a momentum that are hard to change. The existing policies are often better on closer inspection than the alternatives promoted in campaigns.
The change in administrations is most meaningful in terms of priorities. Which programs will the new president champion? Which programs will he or she neglect? For foreign policy, which allies and adversaries will the new president prioritize? Which ones will he or she avoid?
The wisest presidents recognize that their governing powers are much more constrained than their campaign rhetoric allows. Once in office, they must choose carefully where to devote their time and energy. They must shoot for big achievements in a few areas, not fire wildly hoping to hit every possible target.
Presidential elections matter because they reorient national priorities. Style helps to define the issues most important to the candidate and the voters. After four years of George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy focus, Clinton brought fresh attention to what was then a stagnant American economy. George W. Bush also ran on economic issues, but he promised to emphasize growth above fairness. Bush, of course, made security a priority after Sept. 11, 2001, and especially during his reelection campaign in 2004. Obama sought to abandon war and focus yet again on domestic needs. Priorities shift with the times; they define presidential success or failure.
This historical observation would serve us well as voters. We cannot avoid talking about a candidate’s style during the campaign season — it is on display every day in talk shows, debates and advertisements. We rarely hear many policy details, but we always have a chance to see how a candidate addresses a crowd, responds to a tough question or treats supporters on the street.
Instead of judging style in isolation, we should use it to assess the issues that make each candidate most and least comfortable. Which issues tug at the candidate’s heart? Which issues seem to elicit the most personal passion?
In the end, our democratic ritual will not produce a leader capable of doing all that we want. Our expectations are simply too high and our campaign rhetoric encourages an escalation of empty promises. Style, however, matters because it helps us to analyze which figure best matches what we see as the most important issues for the next four years. Elections are a time to articulate national priorities and find the right leaders for them.
In the 2016 election, the American people will have to summon the fortitude to examine candidates in this way. Otherwise, our elections will produce a president worthy only of our worst complaints. The presidency is the hardest job in the world — and choosing the president is often an ugly-but-necessary undertaking.
Suri is a professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is one of four award-winning professors presenting Nov. 8 at the Austin American-Statesman’s One Day University. For registration information, go to onedayu.com/austin.