It seems that the main avenues available to the President of the United States (POTUS) to exercise his will are:
- Vetoing bills
- Hiring and firing top employees in federal government
- Appointing supreme justices
- Interacting with other heads of state (I guess "commander in chief" could fall under this as well)
However, there appears to be an odd tradition of US presidential campaigns making promises regarding things that would fall outside this sphere, and making very few promises that actually pertain to these powers.
The most obvious one is the last item - especially lately, foreign policy has been a major talking point in several campaigns. However, I couldn't say when was the last time a presidential candidate tried running on things like:
- "Agency X sucks, I'll fire the director and hire Y instead, he will fix it!"
- "What a bunch of fools SCOTUS are! I'll appoint much better justices!"
- "Look at all the awful bills congress has been passing lately... I'll put a stop that!"
However, they often make claims about matters such as taxes, abortion, vaccines, high profile corporate scandals and the economy which seem like just those things that happen to fall outside of POTUS's reach. Taxes, for instance, are defined by the tax code, and are a legislative matter. Various corporate scandals are judicial matter. Abortions can be either, depending on whether you're trying to add some new laws or get rid of existing ones, but they certainly seem to have little to do with the executive.
Why is this? The cynical retort is that the American electorate is simply too uneducated to appreciate the separation of powers principle, and hence candidates disregard it when campaigning. However, this doesn't satisfy me as an explanation, because many presidential terms have ultimately precipitated events that can be seen as along the lines of what the president promised. So it appears that the "soft" power of the president is real, and it matters more than the actual legal powers of the executive branch.
So what is going on? Is it that:
- I'm confused about the US government and the executive is in fact capable of implementing many of the campaign promises that candidates typically make
- Candidates promise things that they would obviously not be able to do, the public believes them since they don't understand separation of powers
- Candidates are announcing their intention to a very liberal interpretation of existing law
- POTUS is widely understood to have no legal power to fulfill most of the campaign promises, but due to the prestige and status of the president, his stances strongly influence the behavior of congress
Or is it a fifth option I have not considered?