How Much Does the President Really Matter?

Video

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.

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  1. Ciara Website Copywriter says:

    The president is a necessary evil.
    The people of the states or any democracy need a central figure to either scorn or worship, blame or praise.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  2. Ciara Website Copywriter says:

    The president is a necessary evil.
    The people of the states or any democracy need a central figure to either scorn or worship, blame or praise.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. Alan says:

    The wars, stem cell research policy, and energy and environmental policy are big deals, big enough to affect our lives for manys years to come. These and other issue come from the president, whether directly,as in the stem cell policy, or through advisors or appointees as in the wars and energy policy.

    It is within presidential power to do tremendous harm. And it is relatively easy for them to do it. Doing good things is far more difficult requiring exceptional people.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. Alan says:

    The wars, stem cell research policy, and energy and environmental policy are big deals, big enough to affect our lives for manys years to come. These and other issue come from the president, whether directly,as in the stem cell policy, or through advisors or appointees as in the wars and energy policy.

    It is within presidential power to do tremendous harm. And it is relatively easy for them to do it. Doing good things is far more difficult requiring exceptional people.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. Michael Barnes says:

    I believe in the core statement of this article, that the President of the United States does not DO very much indeed, and is attributed significantly more credit (for better or worse) than is truly deserved. However, I think the approach taken in explaining this perspective is convoluted and unnecessarily complicated.

    At a very simple level, the President is one person, who spends time meeting with people, figuring out where he stands on issues, presumably on the nation’s behalf, and signs, or refuses to sign, various pieces of paper. What moves a nation, or an army into Iraq, for example, are people who empower this President with their own trust. That trust is vested in their showing up to work and following the rules they are given; to sign up for selective service, pay taxes, and obey federal laws, to name a few. But the actual work done, and therein the actual success or failure, depends on these individuals.

    Further, each incoming President appoints more than 3,000 individuals to key posts and positions within the executive branch. Of course, even those who serve “at the pleasure of the President” can hardly be held responsible for what happens within the executive branch. Considering that many people nominated to these appointments take months and at times years to receive congressional approval, what some may describe as a “sea change” (a popular word these days) really becomes a monotonous rise and fall of various tides. In Washington, the political appointees hold tightly to their padded seatbacks, while the lifetime bureaucrats handle the actual day to day business.

    This may steal the scene from the Democrats and Republicans who proclaim with feverish intensity that their cause is of vital importance to the everyday lives of Americans. But it is actually the persistence of bureaucracy, and the impermeability of large institutions, like the federal government, that creates stability.

    Of course, if you listen carefully to political spin-machines, you’ll see the truth emerge plainly enough. If the economy is booming, it must be because of the President’s policies; if it is taking a dive, then it is because the complex mechanisms of the economy are beyond the reach of mere political meddling, and subject to fluctuations that are global in nature and origin. The same can be said in situations of war, public health and education, and really any circumstance that requires “credit claiming,” (a politician’s bread and butter) or distancing.

    In short, while the President attracts the (tentative) trust and attention of a nation, it is the workers within the modest walls of federal and state offices, and everyday businesses, that move this country towards prosperity or peril, from one age to the next, irrespective of the “great” or “terrible” man, or woman, at the helm.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. Michael Barnes says:

    I believe in the core statement of this article, that the President of the United States does not DO very much indeed, and is attributed significantly more credit (for better or worse) than is truly deserved. However, I think the approach taken in explaining this perspective is convoluted and unnecessarily complicated.

    At a very simple level, the President is one person, who spends time meeting with people, figuring out where he stands on issues, presumably on the nation’s behalf, and signs, or refuses to sign, various pieces of paper. What moves a nation, or an army into Iraq, for example, are people who empower this President with their own trust. That trust is vested in their showing up to work and following the rules they are given; to sign up for selective service, pay taxes, and obey federal laws, to name a few. But the actual work done, and therein the actual success or failure, depends on these individuals.

    Further, each incoming President appoints more than 3,000 individuals to key posts and positions within the executive branch. Of course, even those who serve “at the pleasure of the President” can hardly be held responsible for what happens within the executive branch. Considering that many people nominated to these appointments take months and at times years to receive congressional approval, what some may describe as a “sea change” (a popular word these days) really becomes a monotonous rise and fall of various tides. In Washington, the political appointees hold tightly to their padded seatbacks, while the lifetime bureaucrats handle the actual day to day business.

    This may steal the scene from the Democrats and Republicans who proclaim with feverish intensity that their cause is of vital importance to the everyday lives of Americans. But it is actually the persistence of bureaucracy, and the impermeability of large institutions, like the federal government, that creates stability.

    Of course, if you listen carefully to political spin-machines, you’ll see the truth emerge plainly enough. If the economy is booming, it must be because of the President’s policies; if it is taking a dive, then it is because the complex mechanisms of the economy are beyond the reach of mere political meddling, and subject to fluctuations that are global in nature and origin. The same can be said in situations of war, public health and education, and really any circumstance that requires “credit claiming,” (a politician’s bread and butter) or distancing.

    In short, while the President attracts the (tentative) trust and attention of a nation, it is the workers within the modest walls of federal and state offices, and everyday businesses, that move this country towards prosperity or peril, from one age to the next, irrespective of the “great” or “terrible” man, or woman, at the helm.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Glenn Hauman says:

    I blogged about this very item in August of 2004 at http://glennhauman.malibulist.com/archives/001892.html

    from data currently at http://www.sideshow.connectfree.co.uk/JustForTheRecord.htm from 1960-2000 — twenty years Republicans in the White House, twenty years Democrats.

    Quoting:

    1) Economic growth averaged 2.94% under Republican Presidents and 3.92% under Democratic Presidents.

    2) Inflation averaged 4.96% under Republicans and 4.26% under Democrats.

    3) Unemployment averaged 6.75% under Republicans and 5.1% under Democrats.

    4) Total federal spending rose at an average rate of 7.57% under Republican Presidents and at an average rate of 6.96% under Democratic Presidents.

    5) Total non-defense federal spending rose at an average rate of 10.08% under Republicans and at an average rate of 8.34% under Democrats.

    6) During the forty-year period studied, the National Debt grew by $3.8 trillion under budgets submitted by Republican Presidents and by $720 billion under budgets submitted by Democratic Presidents. Stated differently, the average annual deficit under Republicans was $190 billion; and, while under Democrats, it was $36 billion.

    7) During the period studied, under Republican Presidents the number of federal government non-defense employees rose by 310,000, while the number of such employees rose by 59,000 under Democrats.

    Those facts make it difficult to argue that Republican Presidents have done a better job than Democratic Presidents in managing the economy. Indeed, if someone will suggest a measure of economic performance in which Republican Presidents have done better than Democratic Presidents, we will be happy to look into the issue. Surely there must be some measure of economic performance that favors the Republicans; however, we have been unable to locate it.

    So yes, it really does make a difference.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. Glenn Hauman says:

    I blogged about this very item in August of 2004 at http://glennhauman.malibulist.com/archives/001892.html

    from data currently at http://www.sideshow.connectfree.co.uk/JustForTheRecord.htm from 1960-2000 — twenty years Republicans in the White House, twenty years Democrats.

    Quoting:

    1) Economic growth averaged 2.94% under Republican Presidents and 3.92% under Democratic Presidents.

    2) Inflation averaged 4.96% under Republicans and 4.26% under Democrats.

    3) Unemployment averaged 6.75% under Republicans and 5.1% under Democrats.

    4) Total federal spending rose at an average rate of 7.57% under Republican Presidents and at an average rate of 6.96% under Democratic Presidents.

    5) Total non-defense federal spending rose at an average rate of 10.08% under Republicans and at an average rate of 8.34% under Democrats.

    6) During the forty-year period studied, the National Debt grew by $3.8 trillion under budgets submitted by Republican Presidents and by $720 billion under budgets submitted by Democratic Presidents. Stated differently, the average annual deficit under Republicans was $190 billion; and, while under Democrats, it was $36 billion.

    7) During the period studied, under Republican Presidents the number of federal government non-defense employees rose by 310,000, while the number of such employees rose by 59,000 under Democrats.

    Those facts make it difficult to argue that Republican Presidents have done a better job than Democratic Presidents in managing the economy. Indeed, if someone will suggest a measure of economic performance in which Republican Presidents have done better than Democratic Presidents, we will be happy to look into the issue. Surely there must be some measure of economic performance that favors the Republicans; however, we have been unable to locate it.

    So yes, it really does make a difference.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0