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.


Ian

I've thought quite a bit about the ideas expressed (being that they already existed, but he took the time to write them down) by Carlyle and their relation to how Bush and many CEO's view themselves within their organization. The idea itself goes back to Francis Bacon, and by relation even Aristotle, with the idea of the "philosopher king" which was long believed to be the only path to just government. On a side note, David Brooks wrote a column a while ago speaking of the relationships Bush has with other foriegn leaders, making a connection between the state of our foriegn relations and the President's personal relationship with the leader. I think the example he used was something like: "I have a great relationship with (insert leaders name here) so things will go well with on a policy level with(insert country name here). This is an obvious fallacy, but I think it is a prevalent one in the ranks of our highest leadership (be it corporate or political). I agree with you in that bureaucracies will always move with glacial like force, rendering any particular leader ineffectual in the short term. Policy, and accountability to that policy by all levels of leadership (both "great men" and not-so-great men) within a bureaucracy is the only way to affect change.

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Lucas

I don't think this observation says anything besides: Big Changes don't come easy.

The democtratic capitalism system (your terms) is a very strong system. The real strength in the system is that (almost) everyone has a stake in it. This concept has been around for a while (Read Max Weber). So anything or anyone (President) will have a hard time making changes and therefore anyone will be seen as not having that big of impact. This of course is a good thing if you are a winner in the current system and therefore do not want big changes.

For those of us of all political stripes that would like some big changes, I think it does make sense to have great hopes for a new president. Not because the new president will autmoatically change things, but because it is probably the best change to make the biggest gains in the lease amount of time. Great president are at best great catalysts for big change or at least great conduits for big change.

We know that big changes do occur in political systems (Hitler and the Holocaust as your negative example and lets say FDR and social security/social safety net as a positive example).
Political historians know that these individuals in actuality played a small role in the process. However, I think it is fair to say that without their leadership neither change would have been as fast and powerful. The president wont be the most important part of big changes, but we know he/she will be an essential part. All parts are necessary because big change doesn't come easy.

To frame the question another way:

Can you imagine a huge shift in attacking global warming without a president that is committed to the issue?

Will Gays and Lesbians recieve full rights with a US President that is homophobic?

There are, of course, a host of other factors that will impact these changes, corporate leadership, weather, TV, etc. But the average person cannot in one single moment make an impact on these factors. The presidency is not a sure bet, but it may be the best/most efficient bet.

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anandine

The right question is what things would be different if we had a different president. Suggestions include whether we would have invaded Iraq and who would be on the Supreme Court.

Ap

While its a provocative argument to try to make (as many are on this blog), I have to disagree with this one.

The President definitely has his limitations in a few areas, but in some, his influence is large. YOu have to remember, often times the President CREATES the issues that become focal points. Think about it this way: If Bush wasn't in office would Iraq have every happened? Would it even have been MENTIONED as an issue? Would Iraq just be going abuot its merry way right now? I'd have to say probably, and that's just one example.

If the President comes out tomorrow and says his wife has breast cancer and he wants to make it a focal point of his presidency, he can influence that. If he talks about it in his speeches and his State of the Union, individual citizens, under, I guess, the "Great Man" concept and the idea that what the President thinks is important, is acually important, will start caring about breast cancer more (like they care about Darfur LESS because of him), then Congressman respond and money gets allocated, etc.

So no, the personal views and ideas of the President matter ag reat deal because he has the voice and the power to make them a reality.

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Paul

A new president can come in and change the one real effect that Bush has caused.

He or she can bring our troops home.

SeanSeatle

In response to RobertSeattle - the Pres may be a tug boat, but once that big ship is turned, even just a a few degrees (in this case to the right), it is very hard to unturn it. I look at the Supreme Court as the obvious example. We will be living with the Roberts court for many years.

Humbert

I wholeheartedly agree. W is proof that the president is largely inconsequential. The President is supposed to be a sort of international ambassador for the nation and yet W can barely speak. The nation has essentially been on auto-pilot now for about 7 years. By and large things are OK here in the states. As the author points out, it is different matter altogether if you are in the military. As for me, I can't think of one thing that W does that impacts me really. Just a moron on the loose who will soon be put out to pasture.

Ish

This is an odd point to make during a presidency when a few hundred Florida ballots dramatically changed the course of millions of lives in the middle east, many of those terminally.

I think the U.S. is the one country where it's a moral imperative to vote. Not because of domestic policy - our own bad management is our own problem - but because we uniquely can give our president the ability to level other societies. No other voters can give their leader that kind of power.

So sure, most of the time most of what most presidents do isn't very important to most people. But when a US president is frightened, threatened, or just callous, a lot of children can die on a lot of streets. I'd term this more than simply a 'notable exception.'

Moe

I think some of the comments may have missed Dubner's point. Ofcourse the president has influence in Congress, foreign policy, etc. But how much of that really translates to large effects on YOUR life.

Iraq: In all honesty, aside from being bugged by protesters, I haven't felt its effects at all. Total casualties have been around 3,700, which is less than 800 a year on avg. To put that into perspective, there are roughly 40,000 casualties due to car crashes in the U.S. every year. The chances of being effected by someone who has died in Iraq are just slightly higher than being effected by the death of someone who got struck by lightning. True, it's a heartless way of looking at it, but those soldiers knew the risks of Iraq, and they joined the army. Their service is admirable, but it has not effected me. The war in Iraq has had zero effect on my life. If I didn't hear people talking about it, I would not have known that it even happened.

Judges: Sure, presidents can appoint judges. How much does that really effect me? Well... I haven't felt it at all either. Most Americans can't even name the Supreme Court Justices, let alone a recent case.

Economy: This has been debated over and over again, but even if the president has an effect on the economy, I would argue that how I react to it has a greater effect for my wellbeing than the influence of the president.

Social Matters: Gays and lesbians aren't effected by the president, but by their state legislature. I can't really see any social issue that had an impact on my lfe.

In conclusion, if Gore was elected, I really don't think MY life would have changed in any dramatic way. Sure, large macro policies would change, but overall, I can almost guarantee that I would be sitting at this same desk, commenting on this same blog.

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RedRat

I would heartily disagree! You cannot compare the President to a CEO. After all, CEOs are hired by the board of directors or fashioned by the company stockholders. The President, on the other hand (using your analogy), would appoint his "board of directors". If we had a Parliamentarian form of government, as in the UK or most European countries, you might have a point.

This current President has just been far more effective in getting his policies implemented by truly politicizing the whole of government. He wields a good deal of power and uses it. For example, he has basically thumbed his nose at the current Congress and they have been powerless (mostly of their own volition) to essentially slink back to their offices. His war, tax, and economic policies impact everyone in the country.

When the President appoints his cabinet members he surrounds himself with people who will help formulate policy but then see to it that those policies are carried out. During the past 6 or so years you have seen cabinet members leave, presumably because they might disagree on those policy matters, but they LEAVE, and new ones come in.

I think you might be confused because most, and I stress the word 'most', past presidents have felt that they must work with the larger body of Congress to develop programs to further certain aims of their respective political parties. They have been, for the most part, more interested in cooperative alliances and moving to the middle of political thought. President Bush is probably one of the few in recent times that has more influence on government programs than any other president since FDR.

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John Brady

As Mr. Dubner has noted, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be directly attributed to the President (though there was a great deal of support from Congress and the military). As commenter #18 noted foreign policy is greatly influenced by the executive branch though the State dept. has the potential to greatly influence the President's decisions but still is largely at the President's mercy. (Congress always seem to weigh in at a later point). The appointment of Supreme Court judges is very influential and is a real area of Presidential influence (and party politics) that can affect everybody for decades. Certainly the President is a guiding light for the Justice Department as well as the other cabinet departments as to what regulations will be favored and which will be relegated to the back burners. However there are a great number of programs that live on after a President has departed and often assume a bureaucratic life of their own and the current President can have little effect on without causing all manner of havoc. Given all the above (and there is a great deal more), "Does the President have a great effect on the country and our personal lives?" The answer would seem to be sometimes but our President to date have been inextricably bound in the countries politics that they have acted largely with a majority mandate. But President Bush's actions as President have indicated that there is lurking desire to bypass seeking a mandate and simply govern by ideology. Watch out then! You won't be able to ask the above question, but you'll know the answer!

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Concerned Reader

This sort of argument is surprising from someone who probably gets it that small changes in the conditions of a big system can have dramatic effects over time. Never mind the kinds of changes that are seated for decades in the supreme court. And when the stars are aligned, as they were for a long time when Republicans controlled the executive and the legislature, the president (or his office, which is clearly corporate) exerts an influence wildly disproportionate to its representative capacity.

The example of soldiers in iraq is disingenuous. A better one would be women, who already have and will increasingly come to have their uteruses padlocked by an almost entirely male group of decision makers installed by the president.

Women's health declines. Quality of life for children declines. More children group up disenfranchised and tending to criminal behavior. Urban crime and prison overcrowding skyrocket.

Well. There's some exaggeration for effect. But I think the Tipping Point has more to say about the President's effects on things than Dubner.

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econ2econ

I have to agree with the post and with Moe. It's not that they have no influence or that their decisions don't have large scale impacts, it's that at an individual level, not much is changed. Much more of it lies within our minds. The general public acts as if the president has a magic button in his office that raises gas prices and launches missiles.

Blue Sun

I, too, take issue with this simplistic vision of the President and his "powers."

The President is in charge of the entire Executive branch of the government (the only branch that is, at least nominally, in the hands of a single person). He has profound influence on the nation that are not obvious to those only skimming the surface.

Through his appointments and influence, he controls policy at the Department of Defense, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Labor, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of Treasury, and Department of the Interior.

Much of the changing of America's course in critical areas over the past six years has gone on under the media's radar, where lobbyists and corporate flacks installed by the President and his hand-picked Cabinet Secretaries and department heads have been busily tearing down hundreds of regulations or shifting focus away from enforcing existing regulatory law. Much of this alteration in our government is profound, but won't be evident for years, if not decades.

Congress may legislate to their hearts' content, but they must then delegate to these Cabinet departments and the myriad subagencies - all directly under the President's control - to execute the laws.

The President is the point man in all of our diplomatic relations the world over and sets the tone for our relations with the rest of the world. He appoints our ambassadors and other public ministers and consuls, even our U.N. representative. He appoints judges and all other officers of the country not otherwise provided for in the Constitution.

He has the power to negotiate treaties, and, while the Senate has an advise and consent responsibility, if the President doesn't want to participate in an international treaty, the Senate will never see it on their desks for ratification.

Even in the cases where the Senate has the power to reject a Presidential nominee, they can't propose replacements, and must work from the palette the President gives them. He has the absolute power to fill all vacancies with recess appointments when the Senate is not in session.

He has the power to veto any bill he chooses, forcing the Congress to require a supermajority, and not just a simple majority, to do its legistlative duties.

He is the Commander-in-Chief of the various military branches, as well as the militias (National Guard) of the states.

He has the power to grant reprieves, pardons, and commutations for offenses committed against the United States.

And, last of all, he has what Teddy Roosevelt referred to as the "Bully Pulpit," perhaps his greatest power. Nobody else in America has the opportunity or ability to make his beliefs and policies, and the arguments for them, known to the people.

I am thunderstruck once again how little our own citizenry seem to understand about the way our government actually functions.

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Julia

If enough people buy into the Great Man theory, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There were a variety of ways in which the U.S. leader could have discussed 9/11 while in the public eye--our leader framed it as a reason to be fearful of both other foreign attacks and attacks from within; a reason that the government should be given more power to regulate our lives so that they can protect us. Before policy was even created, the President had already set the stage for how the issue was going to be discussed. Sure, the patriot act was passed not just by the President but by other members of our government; but had our leader not turned the nation's mood toward fear and paranoia, it's likely that more leaders and citizens would have viewed the act as an unecessary violation of our rights rather than a necessary sacrifice to shield us from an invisible enemy.

No matter how popular an individual President is, the office of the U.S. President is generally viewed as "important," and therefore how the person in that office frames issues guides the opinion and actions of other leaders and voters. It's not that the President creates policy by himself, it's that he can essentially steer policy just by opening his mouth before it is even brought to the floor.

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Ken Schwarz

The President is the CEO of the executive branch of government. Think about all the administrative agencies. Think about FEMA and the dismal job done in New Orleans. Think about our air traffic control system and how it has become a rare event for a plane to take off or land on time. Who is responsible for making sure things run right? Who is ultimately accountable? If we say that the President can have little impact on our ordinary lives, then who can we blame for the vast array of "little" problems make our lives less than they should be? The President is the top dog and when the business of government is not conducted adequately it is his or her fault.

mike

Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry would have us bogged down in Iraq at the moment. I count that as considerable evidence that presidents do may a significant difference.

Julie

in addition to all the good examples above: the damage to the environment is irreversible, and consider all of his appointments and the work they do in addition to the supreme court. And now that the presidents poll numbers are down, congress is running away from him: so yes, I guess he matters.

Robert C

Generally speaking, I think you are right on about presidents not mattering nearly as much as we think they do. When Clinton, Bush Sr., or Reagan took credit for jobs created, for the collapse of hostile regimes abroad, or for an upturn in the economy, much and perhaps most of the responsibility in each case usually lay elsewhere.

However, given the particular nature of this particular president and his particular decisions, I think we are currently in a -- you guessed it -- PARTICULARLY remarkable period of presidential importance.

Here are just a handful of things that are a result of recent decisions made by this president that would not have been made by a president of a differing political agenda and level of personal incompetence: many thousands of Americans' lives gone that wouldn't have been (Iraq, post-Katrina FEMA etc. incompetence, perhaps even 9/11), hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives gone that wouldn't have been, unprecedented budget deficits that simply would not have occurred, and backing out of support for Kyoto and therefore setting back the move to help forestall the harmful effects of climate change (harming not only US leadership in the fight, to the economic and technological detriment of future generations of Americans -- but quite possibly being ultimately responsible for either otherwise unnecessarily drastic measures in the future or indeed the fate of human life on this planet).

There are of course plenty of other things to add to the list. But I humbly suggest that you think about these things, think about whether they would have occurred during a Clinton, Gore, or even Bush Sr. presidency, and then perhaps consider revising your case to something along the lines of "most of the time presidents don't matter as much as we act like they do, as long as they don't do crazy, colossally detrimental things that endanger and even extinguish the lives and livelihoods of countless thousands and perhaps millions of people". Other than that, keep up the great work!

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John

In my opinion, it depends on the issue. For example, I think that Presidents have very little to do with the success or failure of the economy. Franklin Roosevelt, for all his actions during the Great Depression did not really succeed in pulling the US out of the Depression. It took World War II to do that. On the otherhand, during the Cuban Missle crisis President Kennedy took the US to the brink of nuclear war that would have resulted in the deaths of over 100 million Americans (not counting the impact on the former Soviet Union or Europe). As it turned out he selected an approach that defused the situation and resulted in the withdrawl of Soviet nuclear weapons from Cuba.