American “separation of powers” means we don’t know who to blame when things go wrong

A couple weeks ago, Matt Yglesias had a post arguing, correctly, I think, that the current economic conditions in the US aren’t Bush’s fault. Yeah, Bush was president when things went south, but a better government could have done a lot more to fix things by now.

Trouble is, that doesn’t mean it’s Obama’s fault either. By the time we all vote in November, we’ll have had nearly two years of the government being unable to do much of anything because Republicans control Congress while there’s a Democrat in the White House. If you’re a voter whose voting strategy consists entirely of “vote the bastards out when the economy is bad,” which party do you vote for?

Now, before people comment to say people should vote based on something else, let me say that I personally don’t follow the “vote the bastards out when the economy is bad” strategy. But there’s a lot to be said for it. Few of us know enough about economics to vote based on an intelligent analysis of economic policy, and it would be a burden to get enough of us up to that level. But having a bunch of people vote based on the economy gives politicians a very strong incentive to actually figure out good economic policy for us.

Yet that doesn’t work so well when, as is frequently the case, different parties control Congress and the Whitehouse (or different parties control the House and the Senate). I think that’s a pretty big disadvantage of the US system relative to a parliamentary system.