One platitude I often hear is that the President of the United States is “the most powerful man on earth.”
But it’s not true. And to me it seems obvious right now that it’s not true.
The President of the United States is the titular head of the United States government. And the United States is the most powerful nation on earth. But it does not necessarily follow that the titular head of the most powerful nation’s government is then always and automatically the most powerful person on the planet.
There are many ways that someone other than the head the most powerful nation’s government could become the most powerful person on the planet.
Here are just a few such few ways:
- A regent or an advisor can acquire power that outstrips the titular head of the most powerful nation’s government (think Metternich, Richelieu; Machiavelli; Empress Dowager Cixi, Kissinger)
- A wealthy business or business owner could have power and influence greater than the head of government (think any head of the British or Dutch East India Company in its prime; Andrew Carnegie; Commodore Vanderbilt; Nelson Rockefeller; the original JP Morgan)
- The head of the most powerful country might have limited authority to take unilateral action, while the head of a less powerful country might have unlimited power
- Military leaders often have more power than the nominal head of state (Scipio; Pizarro; Francis Drake; Robert E. Lee; McArthur)
- Some celebrities probably have more power than the head of the US government (in 1967, who was more influential, Lyndon Johnson or John Lennon?)
When looking at Trump’s presidency, regardless of what you think of his actual policies, it’s remarkable how few of his proposed policies have been enacted.
He promised to build a wall. Not a brick has been laid and not a dollar has been allocated to start it. He promised to repeal Obamacare in the first 100 days. It hasn’t happened. He tried to block immigration from a handful of mostly-Muslim countries, but the judicial system greatly restrained his ability to do it.
I think even his most fervent advocates would admit, most of what he’s wanted to accomplish hasn’t happened.
I won’t go into detail for Obama, but I think the same could be said for his presidency. Even his greatest advocates would admit that he wasn’t able to push through much of what he wanted to accomplish because he got so much blowback from Congress.
In sum, the President of the United States needs the cooperation of a lot of other people to do much of anything. The President can issue executive orders and grant pardons—that’s certainly significant, but he cannot enact major policy changes on his own. And all policy revisions, even executive orders, are subject to judicial review for compliance with the constitution.
If you need a lot of other people’s consent, cooperation, and assistance to exert influence, you’re not actually that powerful. Given the strictures of our constitution, there’s a strong argument to be made that no American President has ever been the most powerful man on earth. And given how weak and inept our current president is, that is almost certainly the case today.
If the President of the United States isn’t the most powerful person on earth right now, then who is?
I think there’s a strong argument right now that Vladimir Putin is the most powerful man on earth. According to Bill Browder, he’s as wealthy as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates combined. Like our president, he has the power to start a nuclear war that could end our species and most life on this planet. And unlike our president, he is not especially limited by other branches of government to effectuate his policies. While Russia isn’t as powerful as the United States, Putin exerts much more influence on Russian politics than Obama and Trump combined have exerted on United States politics.
He had the power to influence our most recent election. And I doubt that any one American politician could do much to unseat him from power.
Given that’s the case, it would seem that his power vastly exceeds that of any American politician or businessperson.
Either way, Donald Trump is the head of the United States government right now. But he is NOT the most powerful man on earth.