Why does anyone want to be President, since things can only get worse?

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If a great play requires the suspension of disbelief, then today is the day the show ends. The climax of the campaign to elect the 43rd President of the United States has made tremendous theatre: two candidates racing around the country from battleground state to battleground state in a contest that, in terms of closeness and sheer unpredictability, is among the most exciting in living memory. But the essence of the dramatist's art is illusion. The return to reality is at hand.

If a great play requires the suspension of disbelief, then today is the day the show ends. The climax of the campaign to elect the 43rd President of the United States has made tremendous theatre: two candidates racing around the country from battleground state to battleground state in a contest that, in terms of closeness and sheer unpredictability, is among the most exciting in living memory. But the essence of the dramatist's art is illusion. The return to reality is at hand.

Never, surely, has the gulf between the subjects that have dominated the campaign and the daily grind of the presidency been greater. Out on the stump, the arguments have been about taxes, reform of social security, and health care - as if once in the White House, either Al Gore or George W Bush could send bills incorporating their policies up to Capitol Hill, where they would be debated, approved, and delivered for signature by return of post.

It can never be stressed too strongly that an American president possesses none of the power of a British prime minister backed by a majority in Parliament, able to push through legislation fulfilling his party's manifesto commitments almost at will. The American system is one of checks and balances. Even if the Republicans (or, less probably, the Democrats) gain control of the White House and both houses of Congress, Mr Bush or Mr Gore will almost certainly have to work with wafer-thin majorities in both Senate and House of Representatives; and in the Senate, the true majority is not 51 votes, but the 60 required to end a filibuster. The Republicans currently have only 54 seats, and polls suggest that they will lose at least a couple. Whatever either man achieves will be the fruit of laborious compromise.

Back at the real White House, however, the concerns have been in foreign affairs, the area where the president has genuine executive power but which, beyond the obligatory expressions of undying support for Israel, has been almost entirely neglected by the two main candidates. Bush and Gore have argued over how best to spend trillions of dollars of theoretical future budget surpluses.

Apart from the little matter of the unresolved dispute with Congress over next year's budget, the problems exercising Bill Clinton lately have been the collapse of the Arab-Israeli "peace process", the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, and the complexities of post-Milosevic Yugoslavia.

And in a few years - maybe even a few months - we may be looking back at the Clinton era as a vanished paradise. Take, for a start, the economy. The Vice-President, as he must, insists that the past eight years of unbroken expansion have just been for starters; keep the Democrats in the White House, Mr Gore argues, and the idyll will continue.

In fact, every prospect is that things will get worse, not better. The boom finally shows signs of cooling, the e-bubble has burst and Wall Street has been looking shaky. What if US consumers lose confidence and the market starts to fall seriously, prompting foreigners to pull out some of the money that has been financing years of unprecedented US trade deficits?

On the foreign front, the omens are little better. The new president will have to rethink Middle East policy. With oil prices high and UN sanctions crumbling, he must deal with a reinvigorated Saddam Hussein. Then there is the unresolved matter of national missile defence. In short, la commedia ÿ finita.

This paper has made clear its belief that Al Gore is best qualified to tackle these problems. There are moments, however, when you wonder why either man really wants the job.

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