AMERICA’S candidates for the White House are slugging it out, but why on earth would anyone want the daunting job of being president of the United States?
President Barack Obama gets racial abuse hurled at him, Bill Clinton’s sexual liaisons were investigated, John F Kennedy was assassinated, and President Richard Nixon had to resign in disgrace.
Yet they keep on coming, and this year it’s the turn of Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
Their desire for the job is essentially fuelled by the power it promises — the power to go to war or the power to keep the peace, the power to advance the domestic agenda or the power to stall it.
Much of the power to set the direction of foreign policy rests with the president, so the world has always had a major stake in the outcome of US presidential elections.
JFK kept the peace during the 1960s Cuban missile crisis when a wrong move against Russia could have led to nuclear war.
George W Bush brushed aside pleas from the United Nations and most global leaders and rushed into war against Iraq.
Franklin D Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson saw inequality as the enemy and went to war against poverty in America.
But much of the president’s power is checked under the watchful eye of Congress.
While the president, as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, can send troops into battle without an official war declaration, as happened during the Vietnam War, only Congress can actually declare war.
The president also has the power to make peace treaties but they must be approved by the Senate, as happened recently in the nuclear deal with Iran.
The president can also play a major role in shaping the make up of the judicial branch of government by nominating judges to the Supreme Court, though they too must be approved by the Senate.
The constitutionality of laws is often challenged in the United States so the Supreme Court can have enormous power. Judges must rule impartially of course but they can have wide latitude in interpreting a law so their liberal or conservative leanings are often seen as influencing their decisions.
Indeed, the court is frequently thrust into the middle of political battles.
In the civil rights era of the Fifties and Sixties it delivered progressive judgments that ended many segregation laws, thus advancing the lives of millions of African-Americans, and in 1973 in an historic decision, known as Roe v. Wade, the court overturned a Texas interpretation of abortion law and made abortion legal in the country, a judgment that many are still trying to overturn.
Highlighting this aspect of presidential power on Tuesday, Trump set off a firestorm of controversy when he suggested that while there was little that could be done about preventing a Clinton White House from tapping liberal-leaning judges for Supreme Court vacancies, on the other hand gun-control advocates, whose right to bear arms is protected under the Constitution’s Second Amendment, might be able to do something about it.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” he told a rally. “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day.”
His comments were widely interpreted as advocating violence or assassination against Clinton.
Trump told Fox News later that he was referring to the political movement around the Second Amendment, though he didn’t explain his “horrible day” reference.
The result of this election will be crucial in determining the future leaning of the Supreme Court, which is now waiting for one vacancy to be filled after the death this year of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
A Trump appointee would likely swing it to the right, while a Clinton appointee would tend to tilt it towards the middle. All of which would be crucial if it came to any White House-backed congressional legislation being challenged in the court.
Aspects of Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act, for example, have faced a number of constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court, the most serious of which was in 2012 when the act was upheld by just one vote, that of Chief Justice John Roberts, who was actually an appointee of George W Bush.
In recent times, in the 2000 election, Bush himself fought all the way to the Supreme Court which ultimately declared him president, in his dispute with Democratic candidate Al Gore over the vote-counting process in Florida.
Another important power in the president’s hands is the right to veto legislation approved by Congress. However, the veto is limited, as a bill can only be vetoed in its entirety.
The president can also override Congress and issue executive orders with almost limitless power. Perhaps the most famous executive order was President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration in 1863 that freed all slaves living in the Confederacy.
Some 80 years later, during the Second World War, President Franklin D Roosevelt issued an executive order approving the setting up of internment camps for Japanese-Americans and German-Americans.
President Obama has also used executive orders to introduce limited measures on gun control and immigration reform after Congress failed to act on his proposals. A new president, however, can reverse executive orders.
But the White House job is not just about personal presidential power. The big money interests who support a victorious candidate also view the presidency as a vehicle to help implement their own economic agenda.
If Trump becomes president, for example, he’s promised to repeal the 40% US inheritance tax. This means that his family and other billionaire families like them would stand to gain billions — in Trump’s family’s case the figure they would save has been put at $7bn.
While Clinton will undoubtedly help the big spenders who are helping her, she is also planning to implement measures to help families pay for education — one of her promises is to ultimately make state college education free for families earning up to $100,000.
She also wants to raise the federal minimum wage up to $15 an hour from its current $7.25 an hour.
But sometimes it matters little what the president wants unless there’s a congress in place willing to back that agenda. If Clinton wins the White House but her coattails fail to win back both houses of congress from the Republicans, much of what she wants to do will be blocked or amended.
Likewise, if Trump is elected but fails to bring in congressional victories in his coattails, his presidency will have little to show for itself.
Indeed, that’s why congressional Republicans are in a rising state of panic as they fear that not alone will Trump fail to broaden his voting base and be doomed to defeat but he could bring many of them down with him.
Then again the question has arisen about how much presidential power Trump actually wants.
When he was looking for a running mate, before he chose Indiana Governor Mike Pence, his son Donald Trump Jr contacted Ohio Governor John Kasich’s office about the position and asked an aide if Kasich had any interest “in being the most powerful vice president in history?” When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.
What then, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of? “Making America great again,” was the reply.