When Americans vote for president they are electing someone to fill two jobs, head of state and head of government. In most countries these positions, because the functions are quite different, are filled by two separate individuals. It is a lens through which journalists or other pundits commenting on the presidential race rarely view the contest, but it has an important impact on the way people vote, how the candidates present themselves, and how they perform or misperform in office.
In most countries the head of state, be it a monarch or an elected president, has little involvement with the day to day operation of the government. Instead their job is to represent the self-identity, spirit and values of the nation, performing ceremonial duties and making uplifting (if often largely content-free) speeches. In times of crisis their job is to rally the p[atriotic sense of nationhood. Above the fray and separated from the vicissitudes and heated partisanship of politics they can enjoy the broad support of the people as an act of patriotism to the extent that in Thailand it is against the law to publically criticize the king.
The head of government is an elected official, a career politician, responsible for running the government and seeing that it responds to the needs of the people or at least those who elected them. To criticize them or vote them out of office is seen as in no way unpatriotic or an attack on the country and what it stands for.
Because of the unique history of the United States and its aversion in 1776 to anything resembling monarchy American voters make their decision based on a confused understanding of these two jobs that seem often in conflict. It is easy to over-state the case, but in general Republicans run for the job of head of state, extolling national virtues, appealling to patriotism (often in the most crass ways), and playing up moral values that may have little or nothing to do with the role of government. Their argument for smaller government is more an argument to the voters that the operations of government are not that important and they should make their decision on the more lofty messages they are promoting. Democrats, on the other hand, feel they are primarily electing a head of government who will manage its operations efficiently in a way that will benefit their supporters. They tend to focus less on electing someone to be head state and are frequently made to look vulnerable by Republicans because of this. By successfully denigrating the role of government Republicans seek to make the presidential election more importantly an election for head of state as opposed to head of government. Many of the Republican positions then flow from this. Apart from greed the argument that “the American people do not want their taxes raised”, is really about weakening the role of government and hence the power of the party of government. Reagan and George W. clearly saw themselves as more the head of state than the head of government. Jimmy Carter saw himself quintissentially as head of government which led public opinion to coalesce into criticism of him as being obsessed with detail. FDR is probably the one president in recent history who was most successful in combining both roles.
There is a segment of the American population, perhaps 20 to 25 percent, that sees the US president almost exclusively in the role of head of state. They view the president as a national symbol and believe that attacking the president, regardless of party or failure on the job, is unpatriotic. They tend to be be more Republican than Demoocrat which gives a Republican president a higher floor, below which their approval ratings will not go purely out of the respect for the job they hold. George Bush is probably at that point right now.
First ladies, being themselves unelected, are seen as being the wives of the head of state not the wives of the head of government. It was a failure to understand this distinction that got Hillary Clinton into trouble. As the spouse of the head of state the public is happy for you to be a powerful public advocate for a variety of causes. Where they draw the line, as with Hillary’s health plan, is when a first lady, unelected in her own right, seeks to play a direct role in the operations of governmet.
Our appreciation of the president as head of state is interestingly recognized in the fact that every former president is still referred to as “President so-and so” forever after they leave office. No where does a prime minister continue to carry the title once she or he is out of office.
Peter G. Bourne