Editorial: People, not the president, are who matter most

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot
·3 min read

In Virginia Beach Thursday morning, one might be hard pressed to know that “The Fate of The Nation” and “The Future of the Republic” still hung in the balance.

Navy aircraft took lazy turns in a bright blue sky, the sound of jet engines washing across the landscape in Pungo.

On the Boardwalk, a smattering of mask-wearing walkers took advantage of the sunshine, moving past the installation of the large holiday light displays that are a seasonal Oceanfront tradition.

In most places, in fact, the only evidence of “The Most Consequential Election of Our Lifetime” were the wilting campaign signs occupying front yards and street corners, their usefulness exhausted.

On a day in which America expected to receive a verdict on the presidential race — or at least a more complete accounting of the votes and a clearer picture of who won — the people of Hampton Roads went about their business.

Why wouldn’t they? Folks here already had their say, casting a record number of early ballots thanks to more convenient voting options adopted by the General Assembly this year. Plenty more showed up to vote in person on Election Day, no doubt delighted to see few lines and short waits.

What’s more, the vote counting that proceeded this week in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and elsewhere may determine who serves as president for the next four years, but it doesn’t get the kids ready for another challenging day of virtual learning or put food on the table at a time when tens of thousands of Virginians are out of work.

Whoever wins the presidency won’t be able to change those conditions alone. Certainly not right away, and perhaps not at all. The president wields considerable influence, of course, but not as much as people seem to believe — and far more than the Constitution’s framers could have imagined.

The office outlined in Article II was meant to be an equal branch of government to the legislature, but Congress was vested with sweeping power and greater authority. It was from elected lawmakers that most federal activity was expected to emerge, a balance that’s shifted substantially in recent years.

Americans have — in the last four years and the eight prior — put considerable faith and hope in the power of the chief executive to solve every problem, mend every fence and put a chicken in every pot. They expect the president to move mountains and calm roiling seas.

In fact, so much of that work — that difficult, time-consuming work needed to effect change — is done by citizens who want to make their communities better. It’s done in neighborhoods and towns and cities, not in the federal district or the White House.

Federal policy is consequential, of course — here in Hampton Roads more than most places thanks to our military population and a regional economy dependent on Pentagon spending.

But whoever sits in the Oval Office won’t be all-powerful. He alone cannot halt the spread of coronavirus, stop sea levels from rising or heal the corrosive and pervasive racial injustice that infects the country.

No, progress in many of those areas depends on the American people. It hinges on how we embrace this moment and tackle the challenges before us. The president can help in those efforts or frustrate them, but real, lasting change that improves the lives of our fellow citizens requires us to step up and make a difference.

It depends on the folks who were this week going to work, and caring for their kids, and looking in on their neighbors, and enduring this pandemic and trying each day to put some kindness and compassion into the world.

Whatever the outcome this week or next, and whomever takes the oath of office in January, know that we’re the ones who matter most and who have the power to effect substantive change in our communities.

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