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The Old King is Dead. Long Live the King!

It’s time to realize that focusing on the horse race aspect of American presidential politics is precluding actual governance.

December 9, 2013

Credit: Pete Souza - White House

It is high time to realize that the tendency to focus on the horse race aspect of American presidential politics — who is “winning the week” and who will be “winning” two or four years from now — is an entirely childish behavior and one that precludes actual governance.

No matter who is elected, the permanent campaign that characterizes American politics distracts attention from focusing on the real business of governing the United States.

After a presidential election, many months are wasted in re-staffing the government and learning the basics of running the executive branch.

Once this phase is completed, real governing happens for (at best) three to twelve months and then it’s on to the next horse race — the midterm Congressional elections. By the time those elections end, the re-election cycle for the president is already under way.

A flawed process

Endless election cycles, as is the case in the United States, comes at the expense of competent governance. Moreover, they are, in fact, a pre-democratic behavior.

After all, Americans should be mature, sober and experienced enough by now to stay away from investing their collective hopes in the presumed god-like abilities of a new feudal prince (or princess) to make things so much better for the rest of us.

“The President” may still be the vessel in which the United States invests its hopes for the future. It tells it all that America’s post-feudalist competitor nations are no longer so naive.

Key realities

It is important to acknowledge two key realities of American political life.

The first is that, in today’s world, it is pretty much impossible for anybody to be successful as President of the United States.

The Founding Fathers set up their system of checks and balances with the intention of keeping any one of them, who might serve as President later, from becoming too powerful.

And so it is by design that the U.S. political system, ironic for a nation of self-stylized “deciders,” is set up in such a manner that nobody really gets to decide anything.

Upon closer inspection, even the holding of elections has become superfluous. Why? Because, owing to gerrymandering and the moneyed power of interests, they don’t tend to change any realities on the ground.

What then is the second key reality of American political life that we must reconsider?

It is a sign of an immature, spectacle-ridden political system to be so utterly fascinated with the multi-layered selection of a new “king.” Worse, is a futile endeavor.

Presidential learning curve

Whether Hillary Clinton succeeds Obama, or whether it is Jeb Bush or anyone of the myriad potential candidates from a non-dynastic background (meaning not a Clinton or Bush), it doesn’t really matter. Theirs is a mission impossible – and not just because of how long the learning curve of the presidency is relative to the time available.

If Americans had any sense, they would do away with the 22nd Amendment, which limits Presidents to two terms in office.

The odds are that by the time Barack Obama has completed two terms of on-the-job training, he could actually make a pretty good President, compared to the unavoidable stumbles of a novice president.

A third-term president would likely be somebody who has grown realistic and no longer believes in the mythical power of giving speeches.

Somebody who has learned to change electoral majorities and engage in other brass-tack acts of “dirty” politics that get the real progress made.

The UK comparison

Most of all, though, that present incapacitation of politics is a direct result of present Americans’ fascination with the horse race aspect of politics. It is for a very good reason that the United States’ closest cousin, the UK, limits its election campaigns for the leader of the government to a few short weeks.

That provides Britain with the benefit of focusing their politicians on getting problems solved, rather than always being too busy to do so because of the eternal campaign that undermines U.S. democracy and politics.

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published on December 9, 2013. It has been updated by the author on June 5, 2014.


In today’s world, it is pretty much impossible for anybody to be successful as President of the United States.

It's time to realize that the horse race obsession in US politics precludes actual governance.