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Globe editorial: King Trump? After the Obamacare debacle, the emperor has no clothes

The United States of America is the world's most powerful country, and its president is often rightly referred to as the most powerful man on earth. But America has a divided system of government, which means that, when it comes to passing laws, delivering on an election platform and generally getting things done, a U.S. president has far less power than a Canadian prime minister.

And that's ultimately why President Donald Trump's very first piece of legislation – a profoundly misguided bill to "repeal and replace" Obamacare – went down to defeat last week.

The American system is almost designed to create gridlock, and to make it hard for any one politician or party to impose its agenda. That is often described as a defect. Sometimes, however, it looks more like genius.

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President Trump's party, which has spent seven years railing against the sort of universal health care system created by the Affordable Care Act, controls the White House and both branches of Congress. And yet the Trump-backed bill gutting Obamacare could not make it through the legislature. On Friday, it was pulled from the House of Representatives, before coming to a vote it would have lost.

As a result, Obamacare has not been repealed, replaced or even amended. It's not going anywhere just yet, and maybe not ever.

The outcome has many authors.

There's the fact that Republicans, who spent seven years turning "Obamacare" into an epithet and an insult, never agreed on what they opposed about the actual policy. They talked endlessly about "repeal," but never figured out "replace."

And Mr. Trump campaigned to the left of his party, vaguely promising to gut Obamacare while somehow preserving its benefits for his voters – many of whom are not interested in acquiring the "freedom" to lose their newly acquired health insurance.

The bill he backed, drawn up by House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, reflected that irreconcilable tension. It would have thrown millions of Americans off the health-care rolls, which understandably didn't fly with Democrats, moderate Republicans and many Trump voters. At the same time, its reduction in the government's role in health insurance didn't go far enough for those on the far right of the party.

But the fundamental reason Obamacare is still very much alive is that Mr. Trump isn't an emperor. He isn't King Trump. He's only the President. And that, thank God and the Federalist Papers, is how the American system works.

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The occupant of the White House has enormous powers, particularly on foreign policy. But he's far from omnipotent – especially when it comes to domestic policy.

Compare and contrast: A Canadian prime minister is truly the head of government; a U.S. president is the head of the executive branch, and he can't govern without agreement from a largely independent Congress. A Canadian prime minister can normally count on the MPs of his party to vote as he tells them to (or else); that's not at all how things work in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

That leaves a U.S. president relatively less powerful than a Canadian prime minister – because U.S. congressmen are far more independent than Canadian MPs.

We can argue about whether MPs should have more independence and autonomy (and we'd argue yes, they should). But the American system isn't parliamentary. It was deliberately designed to create a government with many competing heads of power. And many heads of power are exactly what it has.

Mr. Trump may be able to suck up all of the world's media oxygen. Twitter may titter on his every tweet. His megaphone may be louder and his bully pulpit higher than any other president. But for all that, he can't pass legislation without getting buy-in from a majority of America's 535 federal legislators.

And each of those men and women has voters in their home states whom they have to respond to. All members of the House, and one-third of the members of the Senate, will face the electorate in the fall of 2018.

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And it's not just in Congress where America's 18th-century constitution is busy thwarting a 21st-century president. Mr. Trump has repeatedly tried to bring in counterproductive and discriminatory changes to America's immigration and visa system, and he has found himself blocked by another independent head of power: the courts.

In a few years, Americans may go back to complaining about how hard it is to get anything done in Washington. When Democrats ran the White House, they constantly decried this state of affairs, and worked to expand the power of the president to govern through executive orders. The dangers of that approach, and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, have never been more apparent.

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