With the specter of the upcoming presidential election and less-than stellar unemployment and jobs creation data looming over him, President Barack Obama has begun focusing on high-profile initiatives that can help him win over independents and swing voters.
From now until Election Day, Obama will return to the populist, everyman rhetoric that won him the presidency in 2008. However, the elephant in the room is this: Given the scope of America's current challenges, should Obama focus his attention so intently on the 2012 presidential race?
A substantial overhaul of the American presidential election process is long overdue, for a number of reasons. The sheer length of our presidential election process is one of the unique quirks of the American political system. According to the Pew Research Center’s Jan 12-15 New Interests Index survey of 1,008 adults, 57% of respondents said the presidential campaign has already been too long; and the Republican candidate hasn’t even been determined yet! In the same poll, the Pew Center found that the attention news outlets spend analyzing the elections — with 41% of news coverage being devoted to that topic while only 31% of respondents said they followed the topic closely — is disproportionate to the degree of public interest.
The Founding Fathers would surely weep at the state of American elections today. They never could have imagined that presidential elections would become so long and expensive. In fact, as policy analyst Rob Boston argues, it’s highly possible that the Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison — all of whom had complicated personal lives, held publically-known doubts about organized religion, and argued for strict separation of church and state — could not be elected in a modern election, with our over-emphasis on candidates’ personal and political lives.
Similarly, John F. Kennedy could never win an election today. He skipped the Iowa caucus (which no one paid attention to until the 1960s), didn’t spend a full year raising funds ahead of the presidential election, and only threw his hat into the ring 10 months before the general election.
The sheer length of the U.S. presidential campaign is problematic for at least four reasons. First, it exhausts candidates and allows only those whose jobs allow them the flexibility to leave for months on end to run for office. Second, it has led to skyrocketing campaign costs, making it virtually impossible for politicians of with less money or with less national recognition to sustain credible and highly visible campaigns, compared to better-funded and often more ideologically extreme adversaries. Third, the reality show-style coverage of the presidential elections preoccupies the American political consciousness, drowning-out discourse on actual policy making while political columnists analyze each candidate’s every last tic. And, most importantly, the narratives that these elaborate campaigns generate intensify what Slate’s Glenn Greenwald termed “partisan tribalism,” a state in which absolutist political rhetoric compels voters to choose a single side and then to elevate its victory into the primary political priority.
In the interest of keeping campaign costs under control and preventing presidential politics from clouding other issues for too long a time, it is time for marathon campaigning for the presidency to give way to a short-form race. As Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter said, reducing the number of primaries or unpledged convention delegates is one way to decrease the rewards of starting one’s campaign at an unnecessarily early date.
Even if Carter’s specific proposals are rejected for political reasons, the behemoth that is the modern presidential campaign has to be reined in somehow. The only question that remains is when and how it will be done. Otherwise, the harms of today’s elections will continue ballooning out of control.
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