Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The President's Job

With all the Presidential debate stuff going on, what would otherwise be a pretty big story is taking the back burner. There's been a bill kicked around for a decade or more that would allow US citizens to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for damages as a result of 9/11. This has come up now because of the recently un-redacted portion of the 9/11 report that speaks to potential Saudi involvement. Ultimately, the pages are pretty tame - it says the commission looked into links and while there may be some financial connections to individual Saudis, there isn't any direct evidence and no real connection to the Saudi state itself.

Now, lots of people doubt the veracity, or perhaps, the specificity of these details. The very fact that the government took a decade to declassify these pages invites suspicion. It's a messy situation.

What media coverage that exists of this issue is trying to play it off as a good and evil scenario - Congress fighting for the families of 9/11 victims and the President protecting diplomatic cronies with their hand on the oil spigot. That comes off pretty thin, mostly because it's an obviously complicated narrative. For example: a Bush presidency might be more open to Saudi special treatment - no one has yet figured out why Obama would want to help them.

But what this is, and why it's so boring to the media and the general public, is because it's representative of the government working properly. Congress is specifically charged with speaking for the people, in 485 individual blocks. They are supposed to take up the cause of victimized families and support individual issues. That's what Congress is for.
At the same time, the President is responsible for the country as a whole. He has to speak with one voice for the whole, which is a difficult spot to be in with the country so confused about who it wants to be. Foreign policy is one place in which we are just one place - you have to make decisions. The President's job is specifically to represent the best interests of the nation as an entity. As much as we like to say the nation is the people, there is a difference. The State exists as a thing - it represents the people, it is the outer layer of our democratic structure, but it's not the same. There's a reason we have separation of powers, because they represent different things.

So, what's happened is precisely what should happen when everyone is doing their job. Congress worked together to pass a pretty universal bill meant to allow 9/11 families to explore Saudi culpability in court. Yes, it is a tricky foreign policy issue and allowing US citizens to sue foreign governments in US courts could set a lot of difficult precedents, with unknown consequences to our economy and politics. Which is precisely why the President vetoed the bill. It's great for Americans, but not great for America. Both parties did their job.

Now it looks like Congress will override the veto and make the bill law against the President's objection. Again, they're doing their job. Potentially, now, the Courts will weigh in - a third branch of government not specifically representing the nation or the people, but some timeless combination of the two, meant to stand outside of context.

This whole episode is interesting in the season of a Presidential election, where what it takes to be elected is entirely different from what it takes to govern. This is beyond simply the ability to sell yourself in one case and to be reasoned and considered in the next. What it takes to be elected President is to convince the population that you're going to represent them well, but the role of the President isn't to represent the people; it's to represent the country. Presidents run like the nation's congressman, but have to govern like a President.

You see Hillary Clinton struggling with this because she's spent so much time governing. She knows that what a President has to say isn't going to get her elected - she has to act Presidential without actually being Presidential. In this sense, her experience is what's killing her. Trump, on the other hand, has no clue about what it means to govern - he only knows how to sell himself and is going all in on representing the people (of course it can be debated exactly what kind of people he's representing).

We've got one candidate who has no idea what it means to be President and one candidate who has too good an idea of what it means to be President - and neither of them are attractive to the average US voter.

There is, without doubt, a lot of dysfunction in the system, but it has very little to do with the system itself, but the ways in which our culture at large expects people to act towards their own self-interest. Our politicians live into those expectations the same way our voters do. I'm not sure that will change, but I'd hope we can begin to take a step back and figure out how each part contributes uniquely to the whole and make our decisions accordingly.

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