In my time on this planet, I have so far survived nine presidential elections. For as long as I can remember, the media circus surrounding each has focused on the legislative goals of the candidates. By that I mean the main topic of discussion has always been what particular policies the would-be presidents supported, such as their takes on health care law or abortion law or business regulation or tax law.
If your perception of the presidency was informed entirely by watching the news, you might think that the President of the United States functioned as some kind of Super Legislator, as someone who wielded the enviable power of both proposing new laws and then enforcing them upon enactment. Thus, under that framework, whatever a particular candidate suggested we do about health care (for example) would not just be important or influential, but supreme.
But if your perception of the presidency is informed instead by the U.S. Constitution, you might be curious why so much focus is placed on legislative prerogatives. Most of the President's job is defined by Article II, which gives him or her various executive tasks: appoint judges and executive officers, command the military, make treaties, grant pardons, apprise Congress of the state of the union, and "take care that the laws be faithfully executed."
The legislative role is instead vested entirely with Congress, those wily Representatives and Senators who haunt the halls of the U.S. Capitol. Their duties are described by Article I, chief of which are the passing of new laws and the modification or repeal of old ones. That said, they can't legislate on their own. The President does play a part in this process, and makes an appearance in Section 7 of Article I:
Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a law, be presented to the President of the United States; if he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the objections at large on their journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the bill, it shall be sent, together with the objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a law.
The Presidential "objections" to which the Constitution refers are known as a "veto," which can only be overridden by a two-thirds majority of Congress. The presidential veto is a powerful tool that is used sometimes often and sometimes rarely, depending mostly on the partisan makeup of Congress compared to the party affiliation of the President. When Congress is dominated by Republicans but the White House is occupied by a Democrat (and vice versa), vetoes are more common than when the same party controls both.
But why the lesson in basic civics? Because there is now, as there always is, a debate raging among liberal commentators about the various legislative prerogatives of the top two Democratic candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. There is much hand-wringing and finger-pointing about the more radical (or perhaps not radical enough) policies that Sanders supports compared to Clinton. For example, Sanders has long touted the need for universal single-payer health care. He opposes restrictions on abortion. As an independent member of Congress since 1991, he has repeatedly introduced and supported bills with liberal or outright leftist policy goals.
Clinton, however, is regarded as a centrist if not right-leaning. She has repeatedly voiced support (as First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State) for conservative legislation like welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act, and mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes.
Because Congress is currently controlled by Republicans, Clinton, as the centrist, is considered by some to have the more "viable" legislative prerogatives or abilities, and therefore is a more viable candidate for the presidency whereas Sanders would be "a gamble." After all, how effective can President Sanders be if has no hope of passing his pet bills through a hostile Congress?
Very effective, actually. At least in other realms. When faced with a hostile, conservative Congress, sometimes the most important role of a liberal president is that of legislative gatekeeper unafraid to wield the sword of veto. Though his or her own policy goals may not pass, he or she retains the power to prevent worse bills from becoming law. For example, we may not see universal single-payer make any headway during the next four years, but we might see the next president strike down a bill rolling back the incremental gains of the Affordable Care Act.
And the President wields incredible power beyond his or her role as bill signer. First, the President, as Commander in Chief, can determine whether the United States invades a foreign country without provocation or summarily executes its own citizens abroad with airborne drones (Congress' constitutional role in warmaking has been seriously restricted over the past several decades). The President also oversees executive agencies like the EPA and IRS, thus controlling the enforcement of the nation's environmental and tax policies (for example).
Regardless of the particular dynamics of the current presidential race, the general trend of viewing candidates through a legislative lens overlooks the tremendous power of the office. Instead of asking whether any candidates' particular policy prerogative has a chance of passing through Congress as it is currently comprised, the main questions should be centered on the use of executive power. How would each candidate react to a crisis abroad? Will each candidate continue the "War on Terror" and its related drone and surveillance schemes? How will the IRS operate under each candidate; will it audit and prosecute aggressively or will it cut back its staffing? Who would each candidate appoint to the Supreme Court, or to any other vacancy in the federal judiciary? Will the NSA, FBI, and CIA continue to spy on our communications without serious constraint? These are all critical questions.
This is not to say the president does not play an important, influential role in the proposal and eventual passing of legislation. A candidate with strong left wing views like Sanders will inevitably face more resistance in the current House and Senate than a Republican or a conservative Democrat. But to hang support of any particular candidate on his or her ability to pass any particular policy through Congress alone is to miss the constitutional point of the presidency.