American Incentives

It is too early  for me to claim vindication for this post.  Given the high expectations that President Obama came to power with, and the enormity of the task before him, it was inevitable that his first 100 days would disappoint. But I want to make a point about he American political system that many people do not appreciate. The point is that:

The American political system tends to overpromise, but underdeliver change.

Why? Because of the preponderance of  direct elections. Presidential candidates have to win many direct elections before they come to power.  To win direct elections, you have to establish yourself as your own man even if you are in the same party as the incumbent.  In other democracies, handpicked successors tend to gain the organizational backing of the ruling party. In the US, because of the unique organization of parties, there is very little to gain. Even if the incumbent was hugely popular, 8 years of him would have wearied the voters, and his successor needs to be wary of promising 4 more years of the same.  George W Bush was, to put it mildly, not very popular in November 2008, which is why you had both candidates promising change, but similar dynamics would have applied even in 1988, when George Bush was running to succeed Reagan.

So why would it be difficult to deliver change? Because of direct elections again. Both the President and Congressmen are directly elected. Neither is beholden to  the other branch. In a Parliamentary system, a popular Prime Minister would be able to handpick his legislators – in fact, he would have to, because otherwise there would be a chance that he would get dislodged despite his popularity. In the US presidential system, there is

a) structurally no way for  a President to pick his legislators

b) no need for a President to do the same and

c) a risk if he attempted it, because the unpopularity of some legislators may drag him down.

For these reasons, a President, even if he is elected on a mandate for change, will find it difficult to push his legislative agenda through.

None of these explains Obama’s failure so far. That is another story.

7 thoughts on “American Incentives

  1. You have said that the American system underdelivers change.

    As compared to what? The parlimentary system? In this system, here for example, by the time a leader makes it to the top, he has been in the system for a long time. He is beholden to the party, just like it is beholden to him. There is resistance to change, both from the leader as well as the party. Unless there is an external shock, (e.g. 1991) real change is very very difficult.

  2. Flawed, flawed. Parliamentary PMs can handpick legislators only to the extent that they can win votes in the constituencies. The handpicking has nothing to do with being able to push a legislative agenda. T In a fractured house, legislations are difficult to be pushed. In a non-fractured house, legislations are pushed through by issuing three line whips, not by careful pre-selection of candidates.

    Of course, this still does not challenge the point that due to whatever reasons an agenda of legislative change is better pushed through a parliamentary system than through a presidential one. And Mandal surely shows the great ease and power of legislative change in a parliamentary set-up.

    The real question with Obama is – how much of the change he promised is legislative, and how much of it executive? The single greatest thing about a presidential system is the power to select one;s own top executive, that is independent of the vagaries of trying to win elections but yet controlled ultimately by a legislative authority.

    Which brings me to the question – why does a legislator of a presidential candidates’s party stay anywhere true to the president’s agenda at all? If we were to explore this, your conclusions may yet change.

    And evaluation after 100 days in office in 2009? You’ve got to be kidding me.

  3. @rishi: Um.. under-delivery doesn’t have to be compared to another system, only to what was promised by the same system.

    If I give you a job and “promise” you that you’ll be paid INR 10k per month, but end up paying you only INR 8k, then you can accuse me of over-promising and under-delivering without having to accept my argument that all the other jobs in the market only pay, say, INR 4k at best.

  4. VK, rishi’s question has me thinking, and I need to clarify my point. But I don’t think I can get away with the explanation you gave. If I meant that it would deliver less than it promised, I would have just said “overpromise” and not “underdeliver”. Also, if I had intended to provide your explanation, the second half of my post (explaining underdelivery) was not needed.

  5. @Ravi: Thanks for the clarification. I read your latest post and realised that I had figured it wrong. Sorry, Rishi.

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