Sun | Jul 22, 2018

Martin Henry | Why the next US president won’t seriously matter

Published:Sunday | November 6, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Bayfront Park Amphitheater on November 2 in Miami.

Super Tuesday for the whole world is only a couple of days away.

By law, the Tuesday following the first Monday in November is election day, which can fall anywhere between the 2nd and the 8th. Inauguration day for the newly elected president since 1937 by the 20th Amendment to the US Constitution is January 20 unless that day is a Sunday, in which case the public ceremony takes place the following day, as was the case for Barack Obama's second inauguration in 2013.

A lot happens between election day and inauguration day two and a half months later.

But Super Tuesday 2016 may not be so super after all. After all the fuss, the elected president, supervised by the Federal Bureaucracy, will of necessity carry on American domestic and foreign policy, which will remain essentially the same at the core.

The world has been treated to the most fine-grained analysis of the faults and failures, strengths and weaknesses, policies and programmes, and history of the two candidates who have survived the gruelling weeding-out selection process of the two political parties that alone have the strength to get a president into the White House or, for that matter, to get any public official elected all the way down to the base of the political system. The independent candidate is dead; and so is the third party in 'democratic' America, as in most of the rest of the 'democratic' world.

Running up to Super Tuesday back in 2008, with Barack Obama and John McCain as the candidates, I wrote the column 'John Obama or Barack McCain'. Hold on! Let me dust off that column and change the names!

The critical point of the piece was that independently of who occupies the White House, a vast federal bureaucracy determines and directs the affairs of state in the modern American Republic. The president is only the titular head of a vast bureaucracy with a supermind and stubborn will of its own.




Obama's presidency is the perfect case in point. Barack Obama has been the most popular president since John F. Kennedy and came to office with the audacity of hope running high for the transformation of America. Name one thing that he has radically changed in eight years. A thing which would set America on some new path.

Ronald Reagan, who has a place among the great American presidents, determinedly set out to change America in some fundamental ways: A return to smaller government, lower taxes, greater market freedom ... . Reagonomics is widely regarded as the most serious attempt to change the course of US economic policy since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

But no Obama or Reagan initiative has fundamentally altered the dynamics of the American domestic economy and society or America's place in the world. Donald Trump has pledged to reverse Obamacare if elected. What will not be moved is Medicare in some form.

Despite the bitter dogfights between the factions supporting Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump over whose candidate is less morally impure and less unfit to lead, there is an underlying popular political consensus about the social welfare state as provider, manager, director, keeper, and director. A situation that the perceptive French visitor to America Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 predicted in 'Democracy in America'.

The struggle is really over what can be extracted from the State rather than any serious ideological differences about the role of the State and the obligations of the citizen. As in our politics, the contention is over who can better manage and who can better deliver what particular factions think is their due from the State.




Come January 21, 2017, Donaldene Clinton or Hillary Trump (Hillary can be an ungendered name) will have to deal with the same core of really basic issues facing the American State towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century. And the president will deal with these issues in American ways as guided by the Federal Bureaucracy.

Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, was fond of declaring during his 72-year reign, "LÈtat, c'estmoi", "The State, it is me" ("I am the state").

The crucial briefings of the president-elect by the powerful departments and agencies of the federal government between November 7 and January 19 will turn the president-elect into a fit and proper president.

What are the core issues confronting America, the economic, political, and military superpower of the world, on the cusp of Super Tuesday 2016?

Quietly, at home and abroad, there is the ever-present risk of economic derailment, of which the financial crisis and economic recession of 2008 forward is only a harbinger. The world economy and financial system in which the United States is the leading player is inherently unstable on its sandy foundations of unbacked paper money and burgeoning state debts.

The president will have to continue to engage 'Homeland Security' against terrorist threats that will keep coming in from determined enemies waging an asymmetric war against the 'Great Satan'.

While no terrorist act will be great enough to dent American capacity and power, a deep and enduring consequence of the threat that has advanced very rapidly since 9/11 will be the trade-off of freedom for security and the increasing intrusiveness and regulatory dominance of the State.

The issue of the State, as provider, has already been ideologically settled. What remains and may differentiate presidents and presidencies a bit is how best to tax and spend to provide for the people.

Internationally, America cannot avoid being the world's Super Cop and the wielder of imperial power. Which fights to engage, which causes to back with diplomatic aid and military power in a chaotic world of contending forces are already broadly decided under the leadership of the Department of State, which will so advise the president.




One of the greatest threats facing the entire planet now is climate change. The US government has failed to sufficiently engage this issue from the front and has consistently placed domestic economic interest ahead of the international cooperation it says it supports.

Outgoing president Obama, in his final address to the UN General Assembly, powerfully laid out the stark challenges facing the world despite the progress which, he said, had been made in world leadership by his administration and the tasks to be tackled with his successor at the forefront.

While praising America as a rare superpower in human history insofar as it has been willing to think beyond narrow self-interest, he concluded by recognising that "history tells a different story than the one that I've talked about here today". And part of that story which history tells is that imperial great powers will, ultimately, behave imperially, especially when their self-interests are threatened.

Whoever heads the Government of the United States after Tuesday's elections will not, and cannot be, a radically different kind of president from Mr Obama or the many before him for a while back. The federal bureaucracy, the suite of core domestic and international issues, the ideological culture of governance that has developed over years, and the imperial superpower status of the United States will ensure that.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and