How Much Does the President Really Matter?

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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. Felleta says:

    I honestly do think that we would be ok without George W. Bush. or any president at all.
    As long as we had our legislative branch and our judicial branch, we would still have all of the laws and the building lines that have kept this nation going. All the president has done is been the commander and cheif and i think that really any experianced military personel could succeed in that field. More so then a rich man who has sucked up enough to get elected.

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  2. Felleta says:

    I honestly do think that we would be ok without George W. Bush. or any president at all.
    As long as we had our legislative branch and our judicial branch, we would still have all of the laws and the building lines that have kept this nation going. All the president has done is been the commander and cheif and i think that really any experianced military personel could succeed in that field. More so then a rich man who has sucked up enough to get elected.

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  3. Steve L. says:

    Why not ask some of the supposed “great men” themselves?

    “If the Federal Government should go out of existence, the common run of people would not detect the difference in the affairs of their daily life for a considerable length of time. But if the authority of the States were struck down disorder approaching chaos would be upon us within 24 hours.”

    –Calvin Coolidge, Address at the College of William and Mary, May 15, 1926

    “I shall continue to believe that ‘great men’ are a lie, and that there is very little difference in that superstition which leads us to believe in what the world calls ‘great men’ and in that which leads us to believe in witches and conjurors [sic].”

    –Benjamin Rush, letter to John Adams

    “The feasts and funerals in honor of [George] Washington is as corrupt a system as that by which saints were canonized and cardinals, popes, and whole hierarchical systems created.”

    –John Adams, letter to Benjamin Rush

    In his Circular Letter of Farewell to the Army, June 8, 1783, George Washington “chose to emphasize the fortuitous conjunction of large-scale historical forces beyond human control rather than the actions or decisions of men.”

    –Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation, p. 4

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  4. Steve L. says:

    Why not ask some of the supposed “great men” themselves?

    “If the Federal Government should go out of existence, the common run of people would not detect the difference in the affairs of their daily life for a considerable length of time. But if the authority of the States were struck down disorder approaching chaos would be upon us within 24 hours.”

    –Calvin Coolidge, Address at the College of William and Mary, May 15, 1926

    “I shall continue to believe that ‘great men’ are a lie, and that there is very little difference in that superstition which leads us to believe in what the world calls ‘great men’ and in that which leads us to believe in witches and conjurors [sic].”

    –Benjamin Rush, letter to John Adams

    “The feasts and funerals in honor of [George] Washington is as corrupt a system as that by which saints were canonized and cardinals, popes, and whole hierarchical systems created.”

    –John Adams, letter to Benjamin Rush

    In his Circular Letter of Farewell to the Army, June 8, 1783, George Washington “chose to emphasize the fortuitous conjunction of large-scale historical forces beyond human control rather than the actions or decisions of men.”

    –Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation, p. 4

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  5. Seth Green says:

    I kind of agree with you. Upper class people don’t really need to get so worked up about the election. I cannot recall a moment in my life that was directly impacted by any of the now 3 presidents who have served in my lifetime.

    But I don’t think this is as true if you’re, say, a New Orleans resident circa 2005. Or if you’re an 8 year old on food stamps when suddenly they’re cut. Rich people have buffers against the president. People who actually rely on the government as a safety net, who don’t have private insurance, who might have a son in Iraq working to get to college, or who live on food stamps can all be deeply affected by a president’s actions. And that’s why I’d like a president who seems to know that and know that the less fortunate are counting on him. I’d really like FDR.

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  6. Seth Green says:

    I kind of agree with you. Upper class people don’t really need to get so worked up about the election. I cannot recall a moment in my life that was directly impacted by any of the now 3 presidents who have served in my lifetime.

    But I don’t think this is as true if you’re, say, a New Orleans resident circa 2005. Or if you’re an 8 year old on food stamps when suddenly they’re cut. Rich people have buffers against the president. People who actually rely on the government as a safety net, who don’t have private insurance, who might have a son in Iraq working to get to college, or who live on food stamps can all be deeply affected by a president’s actions. And that’s why I’d like a president who seems to know that and know that the less fortunate are counting on him. I’d really like FDR.

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    • S. Quade says:

      The examples you give of the “effect” of “presidents” actions are not items presidents have control over. Congress makes all laws and therefore curry favor (and get re-elected) by giving benefits while at the same time passing laws desired by special interests that hurt all but most, hurt those whose jobs are modest, or who have no jobs.

      Biggest problem, most voters don’t understand which office holders do what under our federal system.

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  7. Bill Prohs says:

    Glenn Hauman, you must be a farmer because you are as full as the stuff as you step in! I don’t know where you get your figures, but you are as typical a Demo as you can get. As an independent, I really resent, the BS I see from both parties, but especially from the Demo’s lately. I’m really starting to lean the other way. The Demo’s want to blame everything on the Pres eventhough they control Congress….go figure!!!!

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  8. Bill Prohs says:

    Glenn Hauman, you must be a farmer because you are as full as the stuff as you step in! I don’t know where you get your figures, but you are as typical a Demo as you can get. As an independent, I really resent, the BS I see from both parties, but especially from the Demo’s lately. I’m really starting to lean the other way. The Demo’s want to blame everything on the Pres eventhough they control Congress….go figure!!!!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0