How Much Does the President Really Matter?


The next time you’re sitting around with family, friends, or neighbors and feel like turning yourself into an instant target of scorn (though perhaps not as much as this person), ask the following question:

How much does the President of the United States really matter?

I’ve gotten the same response each time I’ve asked: a wild look of alarm followed by sputtering indignation and then a lengthy summary of the ways in which the President matters a great deal. Indeed, the person-on-the-street film posted in our video player (right hand column of the home page), suggests that people feel the President affects just about every facet of every American’s life, that he exerts a more powerful pull than a spouse or boss or parents.

Maybe everybody is right and I am wrong, but let me suggest a different view.

Step back for a minute and consider two other kinds of leaders: CEOs and baseball managers. The President is obviously different, but there is at least one strong parallel in all three cases: the person at the top accrues a great deal of the credit or blame for his organization’s overall performance.

But there’s good reason to think that CEOs and baseball managers have substantially less effect on a firm or a team’s outcome than we suspect. There’s a wide range of literature on CEO impact (see here, here, and here, e.g.) and, for baseball managers, less empirical research but considerable right-thinking speculation (see here and here).

So what about the President?

Think of it this way. Let’s assume that you think a given President is the worst in recent memory, or even in history. Then ask yourself to list the things for which he is directly or indirectly responsible.

It’s probably not hard to come up with a long list, especially with the current President. He is, after all, extremely unpopular. Almost everyone’s list would start with the war in Iraq and then, depending on your political and personal persuasion, would include variables like Supreme Court nominations, energy policy, the U.S.’ standing in the world, trouble in the housing and credit markets, etc.

Now stop for a minute and think about your favorite president in recent history. If you are a Bush hater, maybe you want to think about Bill Clinton. Now list all the things for which Clinton was directly or indirectly responsible that you liked a great deal, and that really affected you on a daily basis.

There are some notable exceptions to my argument: if you have a family member fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq, it’s impossible not to attribute his or her presence there to a decision made by the President. But on many other fronts, I would argue that the President’s impact is significantly overestimated. Does he nominate judges, try to effect legislation and move the economy, and set the tone for relationships with other countries? Absolutely. But for every Presidential action, there are a million strong reactions waiting to occur.

I would argue that it’s worth thinking about our system of democratic capitalism as a market like many others, not so different from the stock market. These are complex, dynamic systems in which one decision triggers many others, in which an equilibrium is constantly being sought, in which sudden movements up or down are interpreted as catastrophic in the short run but which prove, in the long run, to be minor corrections in a fairly stable system that’s organically evolving.

As for the economy itself: even though there is debate over the President’s effect on matters affecting people on a daily basis – gas and food prices, interest rates and the housing market – most economists agree that he is more of a cheerleader in this regard than a playmaker.

So why do we attribute so much power to the person in charge?

The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, in his fascinating and unsettling book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, embraced what has come to be known as the “Great Man Theory.” His view was, essentially, that history is blessed now and then by a rare heroic person who is born to lead and without whom our civilization would crumble. It is as anti-market a view as you could conceive. Personally, I find this idea a bit depressing, though I do acknowledge the common psychological need for a strong father or mother figure, for someone to stand tall and protect us, assure us, and take responsibility — even though, except in extremely rare cases (Hitler comes to mind), it is irrational to think that any one person can be responsible for the actions of millions.

Still, I think I’m in the minority. Americans’ widespread belief in the President’s absolute power — love him or hate him — is proof that the Great Man theory is alive and well. My simple argument is that this belief, as emotionally appealing as it may be, is not founded on truth.

But just pretend for a minute that you do agree with me. If you do happen to dislike the current President, this is really good news, since he probably affects your life a lot less than you fear.

Unfortunately, it’s also really bad news, because if you are hoping that a new President will swoop in and fix everything, that’s not going to happen.


The president doesn't make laws, or decide on fiscal policy for interest rates, etc, so I would agree that he is has less influence than most people think.
He can make supreme court nominations and that has some impact with legal precidence, but when a new president comes in, if he elects new justices, they can go back and re-decide on legal proceedings.
He can move a country into war, but still needs congress to approve (unless you don't call it a "war").
I would say mostly what the president does it approve/not approve what others do, whether it be the national budget or new laws.

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

Does the President really matter???!!! Heavens, yes! I can't tell you how many times I've heard President Bush (Part Duh) speak (even if for only brief moments before I switch the dial). It's outrageous, considering that I avoid hard news like the plague. Still, that man's mealy-mouthed, snide, sniggly tones of self-satisfied bravado have infiltrated my mind, despite my best efforts to prevent this (Clinton really does have a much smoother, much more intelligent sound to his voice). Here's a suggestion: if you *really* want to make people mad, ask them if there's any point in voting. Hoo-wee! Patriotic Fireworks a-plenty!


Your post makes a lot of sense. I noticed in the Spring of 2000 that something had shifted in this country.

If I find George W. Bush to be arrogant, demanding of blind obedience, short sighted, not interested in science and ruled by emotion, then I also found that in my workplace. George Bush didn't cause my workplace to turn evil. Both Bush and my workplace are representative of something larger.


Isn't the issue about CEO pay whether I not I can replace the current CEO with a cheaper one and still get the same performance? That is how my company looks at me as an employee - I don't see why as a shareholder I shouldn't do the same...

As for GW, I can attribute to him 1 trillion in debt once the war done - that effects interest rates. There is also an increase in the price of oil due to instability he caused in the middle east... Just those two alone seem pretty significant to me from a financial side - never mind the civil rights/rule of law issues which subvert the whole structure of our society...

Troy Camplin

I've been making this argument for years. I ttypically doesn't take long to convince people of just how unimportant the U.S. President really is. That is because of the system we have. If you are living under a dictatorship, the leader may affect you a great deal. ANd if the government is socialist, the government as a whole will affect you a great deal. But the U.S. system of government was precisely set up so that the federal government affected us least -- it had a power law distribution of power, with the one federal government having the least effect your our lives, the more numerous state governments having more effect, and the even more numerous local governments having the most effect -- with the even more numerous voluntary associations having even more effect. This is how it was intended, and how it still works for the most part. This is why the President -- the particular President we have -- matters very little.

I remember in particular back when Clinton was first elected. He had made a number of campaign promises regarding foreign policy -- the vast majority of which he reversed the day he took office. What happened? Im sure that in the transition, President GHW Bush told him, "Okay, those promises were interesting ideas, but here's how the world really works . . . " And there was thus a great deal of continuity between Bush and Clinton.



The President is like a tug boat pushing around a huge ship (Hopefully not the Titanic) - the President can make minor adjustments - maybe avoid the occasional iceberg, but that's about it.


I've long believed that the President doesn't have much of an influence on day-to-day issues: interest rates, the general state of the economy etc. Whoever occupied the White House during the 90's, the run of the dot com bubble and the exuberant economy would likely have been the same.

However, because many things are self-fulfilling, the emotional connection you mention, how people feel about the President can have a large impact. People may spend less (or more) and make decisions influenced by their perception and not reality. So the direct influence of the person who is President may be limited. The ripple effect of how people react to the President may be far greater.


If I'm getting your shtick right, you just take the opposite of whatever the conventional wisdom is and build a case around it, right?


...But then again, if so many citizens believe act based on a belief in the 'Great Man' theory (conscious or not), the aggregate result of those actions tends to turn their perception into their reality. Now, could this be measured in any quantifiable way? There's one more can of worms for ya...

Haris H.

I think a lot of the hero-worship, Great Man instinct in us stems from the days of small clans and tribes, when the strong man was the leader who kept the group together in days when co-operation was necessary to survival. We instinctively seek out such a strong man, for we have evolved to equate such men with survival. Clearly our instincts are not really compatible with modern society, and it's plausible that generations from now thsi instinct will be much weaker. But as long as we carry the genes of the clans and tribes who needed a leader, so will we crave leadership and ascribe it to someone whether deserved or not.


If the president's job is done correctly, he shouldn't affect you much at all, but bad president's can affect lives a great deal in a very bad way, so you have to be very careful who you vote for.

Karl B.

Great post.


This argument reminds me of a similar one from fiction - Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide in which the president of the galaxy's primary objective was to distract the public from the real inner-workings of the government. The theory being that things work themselves out on their own while we (the public) are distracted by other things.

Robert Seidman

all the above comments notwithstanding, I still agree with Dubner completely on this topic and have thought this way for years.

I usually try not to bring it up because it works people into a frenzy which does not always produce good results in real life, but is totally appropriate here.


this post is at best disingenuous- yeah, Bush is a figurehead- but his admisitration is extraordinarily powerful- probably one of the most unilateral in our history- mobilizing the country's resources to invade foreign countries and alter the course of history- gutting domestic government market regulations and altering the evolution of our governing system- this is far more powerful than Lay's shenanigans- perhaps you meant the president of Newfoundland doesn't matter

Jeremy C. Feldman

The difference between a CEO and the President is that a CEO doesn't have a democratically elected legislative body to lead. While there may be a lot of literature on CEO impact on organizations, there's just as much, if not more, literature on the need for strong leadership in legislative bodies. A successful president (or governor for that matter) sets the legislative agenda, builds consensus and conducts the necessary horse trading to pass his legislative initiatives through Congress. He then implements those initiatives and his held directly accountable for their success or failure. While there are cursory similarities between CEOs and the presidency, I would bet you anything that even the most sophisticated CEO would be totally lost in Oval Office.


I have to disagree, albeit in a bit of a roundabout way.

The president, like any other head of state, comes to represent the hopes and desires of the country he or she fronts (see: "mandate"). Due to this unique standing, this single person has an ability to set an ideological agenda for the nation and shape which laws, judicial decisions, etc. are made by the rest of the country's government.

I would argue that, unless you're willing to accept that the government as a whole doesn't have much effect on your life (I, for one, would not make that argument) you cannot possibly dismiss the effects of the president as the controlling influence on the government.

It should also be noted that US presidents have a few special powers they can use to directly affect day-to-governance, e.g. executive orders and presidential signing statements; though, on the whole, I would argue that these are far less important to the presidents' overall influence.



I think that this view is incomplete at best. It is true that in certain spheres, such as the economy or the domestic political agenda, the president's powers are limited. This is, after all, a democracy with elected representatives and a free market economy. (Note that this doesn't stop presidents from taking credit for economic growth!)

However, since WWII, the Executive Branch of the United States has accumulated enormous power in regards to foreign policy. In turn, America's foreign affairs decisions have significant impact on the world. To suggest that the president may not "matter" much is therefore incorrect. His power is certainly not absolute, but every major American foreign policy initiative that I can think of in the last 60 years was the result of a direct decision made by the chief executive.


Much of what the public hears from the president and Congress is mostly rhetoric, especially during elections. Much of what each promises cannot be fulfilled without the cooperation of numerous other competing factions; words don't mean anything unless the president can move 535 people to act - that's problematic when there are competing interests which change with election cycles, the media's ability to distort events, and the intelligence and motivation of the electorate on any given topic.

Tip O'Neil said that he received so many constituent complaints about interfering with newly elected Reagan that he felt compelled to give in to many of Reagan's ideas. I would think that the power of the President to influence depends on the response of the electorate who feel compelled to act but usually only when the situation becomes dire.


I think you can make a better argument in the sciences -- that basically any ONE scientist doesn't matter, and that whatever they discovered/developed would have just been discovered/developed at some later time.

On the other hand, starting a stupid war kills hundreds of thousands of people [the majority being Iraqi civilians] who are dead forever.

To me, this post sounds like what a lot of former Bush supporters are saying now.
There are several variants: "Bush really wan't a conservative, so his failure doesn't tarnish conservatives." is one common one.

This one is "it doesn't matter who was president -- all this bad s*** would have happened no matter who was president."

Face it, those who voted for Bush: the guy is/was a disaster, and you are responsible for putting him there. It's an ugly truth, but it's truth.