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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.