The U.S. art of empty electioneering

I’ve lived in the United States for 10 years now – and would like to stay if it will have me. But even in this nation of immigrants I’ve come to see that I'll always feel like a foreigner. I feel especially foreign during presidential election campaigns. Unfortunately, that means all the time.

It’s hard to say when Hillary Clinton actually started her run for president – sometime in the 1990s – but she announced the official start of her latest effort a week ago, before taking to a van in search of everyday Americans to champion. Her declaration had been keenly awaited, and the delay had started to arouse concern. After all, she now has barely 19 months left to make her case.

Isn’t this a little excessive? The time, effort and money that will be poured into the battle for the presidency are enormous – and, let’s be honest, the difference the outcome will make is limited. In my native Britain, the ratio is inverted. Elections matter more, and they’re over in a flash. In the U.S., the disjuncture between input and output is extreme, yet it seems to trouble few Americans.

I’m not saying the election doesn’t matter at all. It matters, especially when it comes to foreign policy. But even foreign policy is driven more by unforeseen events and immovable facts than by any president’s ideas. It’s a test of temperament as much as ideology, and that’s hard to judge before the fact. In domestic policy, the president’s power is explicitly circumscribed: Congress writes the laws. Budget constraints, partisan bickering and the mysterious arts of redistricting do the rest.

Doesn’t the Affordable Care Act – nicknamed Obamacare, not Pelosicare – refute such defeatism? Only up to a point. It happened in a rare moment of unified control of the White House and Capitol Hill. Obama delegated design of the plan to Congress and, far from pushing it anywhere, failed to make the case to the public; because of that, the law’s future is still in doubt. And by the way, only by American standards can Obamacare be judged a truly radical reform, rather than a muddled compromise. Is this the best that presidential power can do?

Sure, it matters who’s president, but the endless attention paid to choosing the candidate still seems out of proportion. What’s more, the effort is self-negating: In its own right, it diminishes what’s at stake. Campaigning drains energy and attention from governing: It’s a substitute for the real thing.

While Clinton was meeting everyday Iowans last week, the sitting president was talking to an audience in North Carolina about “middle-class economics.” By middle class, he means everyday Americans. This is supposed to be the domestic-policy theme for the time remaining in his presidency, which is ample. And a good theme it is too.

Yet all of a sudden Obama, who’s in office, seems less important than Clinton, who isn’t. In pressing his goals he is now competing for the spotlight with a candidate who, if successful, won’t take over until 2017 – to say nothing of the many Republican contenders for his job. As the Wall Street Journal put it: “This moment, when the political conversation begins to turn from the current White House to the next one, arrives during every administration. But Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, which went from zero to full-fledged frenzy last week, may have hastened the process.”

My inner Brit wants to say that the political conversation is therefore about the wrong thing. At the same time, as Americans insist, it is what it is.

Everyday Americans, I believe, understand the issue and have adapted with characteristic resourcefulness. They see national politics as part of the sports and entertainment industry: fun to watch, if your tastes run that way; capable of arousing obsessive interest among true devotees and the mentally disturbed; but not amounting to much and certainly not as important as, say, electing your local mayor or sheriff. The media, attentive to the appetites of everyday Americans, report national politics in just this way.

The proof is that presidential candidates, like other celebrities, need lots of things to talk about, including views about policies of all kinds – but require no actual policies. Who cares what they would do if they were leaders in a parliamentary system, capable of breaking or keeping their promises? It’s beside the point. A British minister, on resigning, once told Parliament that the government he was leaving gave the impression of being “in office, but not in power.” A devastating assessment in Britain reads like a mere statement of the obvious in the U.S.

For the same reason, it’s merely desirable – not essential – that presidential candidates be trustworthy. The winner is going to be hemmed in by Congress, and for much of the time, once elected, will be irrelevant, as Obama has discovered. If the winner isn’t going to be entrusted with power, why would it matter that he or she is trustworthy?

For the purpose of winning – and what other purpose is there? – it’s far more important that a presidential candidate be liked. Voters liked Obama, and probably agreed with him when he said in 2008 that Clinton was only “likeable enough.” That’s doubtless in her playbook for 2016, and she has plenty of time to advance the ball – if that’s the correct expression. Not that it matters all that much whether she does.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.