Cradle of Democracy, Grave of Democrats: How Greece Could Sink Obama's Re-Election

Do voters put too much emphasis on events outside of the president's control?

greece may11 p.jpg
"O Allos Anthropos" (The Fellow Man), a soup kitchen for the poor in Athens, Greece. (Reuters)

First, Antonis Samaras of the New Democracy Party attempted to form a governing majority in Greece's Parliament and he failed. Next, Alexis Tsipras, of the radical-left Syriza party, tried to pull the sword from the political stone, and he also failed. Now the head of the Socialists, Evangelos Venizelos, is struggling to create an administration in Athens. Samaras, Tsipras, and Venizelos are hardly household names in the United States, yet they may hold significant power over President Obama's fate.

The 2012 U.S. presidential election could be in many ways about the global economy. If Europe stabilizes, the global economy will be more likely to steady itself, which could lead U.S. job creation to tick upward, the stock market to advance, and the odds to favor Obama's reelection. But if Greece lurches off the cliff edge, taking Europe with it, the markets may tank, job creation could stall, and suddenly we're looking at a Mitt Romney presidency.

Greece, the birthplace of democracy, reveals an uncomfortable truth about elections. We often vote presidents in and out of office because of forces beyond their control.

Democracy requires a myth of responsibility. Elected officials make decisions and then we judge the fruit of their labors. In this tale, the president is the decider. Jetting around in Air Force One, delivering speeches in the Rose Garden, helming a $15 trillion dollar economy, commanding 11 aircraft carrier strike groups, the president seems to bestride the political world like a colossus.

We're drawn to the "great man" theory of history. When Reagan died in 2004, it was said that he'd won the Cold War. And it's not just presidents. When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, it was said that he'd won the Cold War. There was apparently a period during 2004 and 2005 in which, if you died, it was assumed that you won the Cold War.

Today, both friend and foe put great weight on the Obama factor, or his personal responsibility for policy. Healthcare reform contains the fingerprints of thousands of Congressmen, policy experts, doctors, and academics. But the Republicans call it simply "Obamacare"--a label the president has also embraced. Democrats sometimes talk about the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden as if Obama had piloted one of the helicopters.

John F. Kennedy famously said that victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan. In the American public eye, however, both victory and defeat have a single parent right now, and his name is Obama.

This tale of presidential responsibility is comforting. Skilful statecraft is rewarded. Bungling is punished. Democracy is meaningful. Elections have consequences.

But we often place far too much responsibility on the individual president. Larger forces can compel his or her hand. "I claim not to have controlled events," said Abraham Lincoln, "but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

In Greece, for instance, Obama has little control. He cannot fashion the behind-the-scenes negotiations or construct a new government in Athens, even though his presidency may hang in the balance.

Increasingly, America's economic and political fate lies in the hands of foreigners. The world is becoming more globalized and interconnected, and the United States is more sensitive to events abroad. And as power shifts to East Asia, American dependence only grows.

This means we shouldn't necessarily vote for a president based on his overall economic record. After all, he might not be responsible. What matters is how the president plays the hand he was dealt.

If Obama bungles his lines but somehow the Europeans sort out their mess, the president should still be punished. And if Obama performs heroically, but the Europeans commit financial hari-kari, the president deserves credit from the voters. Or that's how it should work, anyway.

This is political chaos theory. A Greek butterfly flaps its wings and an American hurricane forms.