The Power of the President — and the Thumb

Our Freakonomics Radio project includes a regular podcast and Marketplace segment. But twice a year, we also produce a set of five one-hour specials that play on public-radio stations across the country. Find a station near you.

Season 2, Episode 3

In this episode we ask a simple, heretical question: How much does the President of the United States really matter? Stephen Dubner talks to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, economists Austan Goolsbee and Justin Wolfers, and constitutional scholar Bernadette Meyler about how the President’s actual influence can be measured. And Steve Levitt weighs in on how the President shapes the nation.

Also in this episode, we look at another supposed truism: hitchhiking is terribly dangerous. But is that really true? Hitchhiking has practically disappeared in America, but why? Was it really as dangerous as we believed? Even if so, what other factors were at play?

We talk to data wizard Bill James, who says our risk aversion to hitchhiking makes it more dangerous, and transportation scholar Alan Pisarski, who looks at how hitchhiking can inform future transportation policy. Would society be better off with more hitchhiking?


Can you please also put your special NPR shows on podcasts as well???


It's great to hear about the subject of hitchhiking. I have traveled this method across the country from the late 70's till the early 90's. One of my last trips was from Denver to DC for Bill Clinton's first Inaugural. I went to Charlottsville to see him speak and met him on a rope line.
The trip back to DC was long because security would not allow any cars to drive on the main road for hours. It took me 8 hours. Longest time ever for me as a female.

My first trip was from LA to Dulles. I started out with two guys I met in Long Beach and they turned out to be jerks. Our first ride was to Needles, CA. A desert. We waited in shade created by low bushes and sipped water until the sun went down and the next ride took me to Dulles.
When I got there I used a pay phone to call a friend in California. The August sun was soon to set and I had no idea what I would do next. I turned from the phone and a guy in a tank-sized car was there. We started a conversation, got high and listened to music into the night. He worked at a Lumber company in Tyson's corner. He let me sleep with no strings in a small trailor. The next morning he took me to his wife and kids. They were separated at the time and I was able to help babysit in exchange for a room. I soon got a job at Woolworth's as a waitress and found an apartment in Reston. This was in 1978. I enjoyed my travels by thumb. I would do it again if i had to but I live on the hill and still don't drive.



How do I listen to this! I can't find it anywhere-- no place to play it or podcast very frustrating!

Catherine Schuler

I heard the program and would really like to get either a transcript or a podcast. Is that possible? If so, how?


How does a person listen to a repeat for the braodcast from to-days (2/19) braodcast on KCRW ? As Tom had asked below on Feb4th but there has been no respnse from the Editors .

Richard Boucher

With regards to a US Presidents powers, I have made the argument for many years that the American people seem to be under the mistaken belief that we somehow elect something approaching a 'dictator'. What is most interesting to me is how the presumption of Presidential omnipotence seems to be inversely proportional to how much 'your side' is in power. 6 years ago Democrats railed against Bush's 'power grabs' while Republican's lamented the machinations of the Left to block all of his good works. Presently, The Left seems fond of pointing out how limited a President's powers really are. An intellectual exercise that they failed to engage in during the previous administration. The Right is no better with the endless Socialist agenda conspiracy theories that they seem to believe the current occupant of the White House would enact with a stroke of a pen if not for a small group of intrepid patriots shining the light of justice upon it all.



I'd love to listen to the podcast of "The Power of the President," -- however,clicking on the link just sends me to the archives and it's not there. What's up?


I believe that you are asking the wrong question. The question should be "How much HARM can the president do to the economy?"

The economy is a market based free-market based system. However government can only hurt the free market with intervention through over regulation, excessive taxes, attempting to pick winners and losers, and speeches that demonize those who are successful.

So the answer to my question is that the president can do a lot to harm the economy. Congress also has the power to great harm to the economy and in many cases does even more harm. There is a correlation about prosperity in the economy when there is divided government, meaning the ability of government to enact new laws is muted hence the economy thrives and prospers.

Tim Shey

The United States needs more hitchhikers. It would be good for the economy.

"Bill Would Legalize Hitchhiking in State"