Who “Runs The Country?” We Do!

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Who runs the country?”

I’ve been hearing variants of that question a lot over the last  few weeks, mainly in forms like “given Joe Biden’s age and apparent mental decline, can we trust him to run the country for another four years?”

For the last eight or nine years, I’ve also heard it a lot, in slightly different forms, about Donald Trump.

I visited Google Trends to find out if I’m just imagining increased frequency of that annoying question. Turns out my perception is correct: After a brief spike in 2004, the phrase “who runs the country” took a long vacation, only beginning to rise to prominence again a decade or so ago, and recently peaking at its highest point since 2015.

It’s a really dumb question … and a pet peeve of mine.

Donald Trump did not “run the country” from 2017 to 2021.

Nor has Joe Biden “run the country” since then.

Whoever wins this November’s presidential election will not “run the country” starting next January 20.

What are you doing today?

Whatever that might be, did you ask Joe Biden for permission to do it? Next January, will you start running your daily calendar by Joe Biden or Donald Trump for approval?

Almost certainly not.

The president is just one of more than 330 million Americans. He (or, someday, she) may be more powerful than most of us, But not so much more powerful that he “runs the country” in any meaningful sense.

At MOST, the president “runs” one of three branches of the federal government … and the federal government is not “the country.”

Economics isn’t everything, but it’s a useful thing. US Gross Domestic Product (the value of all goods and services produced) in 2023 topped $27 trillion, of which the federal government spent $6.13 trillion. That’s a lot. It’s WAY too much. But it’s hardly “running the country.”

That $6.13 trillion was appropriated by Congress, not the president.

His only power over that is to sign or veto the appropriations bills (in the latter case, Congress can override him), then spend the money as Congress directs.

Increasingly “imperial” presidents since World War 2 have tried to get around such strictures with “executive orders.” Sometimes that works. Other times Congress or the courts say “nope.”

Outside the purely economic arena, the president gets to negotiate treaties (but the Senate must approve them) and act as commander in chief of the armed forces when they are “called into the service of the United States,” which should only happen when Congress has declared war (it hasn’t done so in 80 years).

The president doesn’t “run the country.” He only “runs the government” to a limited extent, if Congress and the courts allow it (they allow it far too much).

The country is “run” by those of us who produce that $27 trillion in goods and services every year … or don’t .. and who go about our business with or without a president’s permission.

We should stop fantasizing so much power into the hands of politicians. They’re just wasteful parasites. We’re the productive hosts.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.