Does the President Matter as Much as You Think? (Ep. 404)
We asked this same question nearly a decade ago. The answer then: probably not. But a lot has changed since then, and we’re three years into one of the most anomalous presidencies in American history. So once again we try to sort out presidential signal from noise. What we hear from legal and policy experts may leave you surprised, befuddled — and maybe infuriated.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Now that the presidential primaries are finally underway — which means that rather than taking up 90 percent of your daily news coverage, the election will now take up 100 percent — there’s a question I think is worth asking. But let me say this: you probably won’t think this question is worth asking. You’ll probably think this question is dumber than dumb, a waste of neurons. It’s a question we first asked in Freakonomics land back when George W. Bush was president, then again during the Obama era, and here we are now in the age of Trump. With a president who’s just been impeached, no less!
And yet the question we want to ask today is this: how much does the President of the United States really matter? I fully recognize this may not sound like a sensible question, that the answer is too obvious. So why do I think it’s worth asking? Because we humans aren’t always so good at understanding cause-and-effect. Intellectually, you know this; we talk all the time on this show about how the relationship between x and y isn’t always what it seems; that other, less-obvious factors may be important. But emotionally — that’s a different story.
Emotionally, we tend to be drawn to clean, simple explanations of cause and effect, even if the reality is more nuanced. This may be a form of mythical reductionism. We love our heroes, and our villains. So if you happen to hate a particular president and I ask you “How much does the president matter?”, you’ll probably say the president matters very much, because it’s tempting to blame every bad thing you see on this person who seemingly has infinite power. And what if you happen to love a particular president? You may well give the same answer: they matter very much, you say, because you’ll attribute all good things, all signs of progress, to your president — even if he or she had demonstrably zero to do with a given piece of progress.
That said, has there ever been a less-opportune time to ask the question we’re asking today? Maybe not. Donald Trump is the most anomalous and divisive U.S. president in recent history, maybe our entire history. But then again, maybe it’s the perfect time to revisit this question. Americans are obsessed with the presidency. We may ridicule the British obsession with their monarchy, but is the attention we pay to the president — positive and negative attention — is it really so different? Consider this odd fact: the Gallup Poll every year asks Americans to name the man they most admire, living anywhere in the world. Last year, the result was a tie — between Donald Trump and Barack Obama.
Whether you love or hate a given president, the White House captures so much of our attention that it seems worth asking: how much is signal and how much is just noise? How much smoke, how much fire? Is the so-called “leader of the free world” as almighty as we tend to think? Today on Freakonomics Radio, we put this question to three people in a good position to answer it: a law professor who studies presidential power, a law professor who studies constitutionalism, and a former White House chief economist. We talk about the relative power of the government’s three branches; we talk about the evolution of the presidency; and yes, we talk about Donald Trump.
Glenn HUBBARD: Well, I think President Trump can rightly claim some credit.
Eric POSNER: No, I do think he’s unfit.
Bernadette MEYLER: I think it’s a lot easier for a president to destroy than to create.
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Let’s start with the president’s role in the economy. And for that, we turn to Glenn Hubbard.
HUBBARD: I’m a professor of finance and economics at Columbia University.
Hubbard has twice served in government — in the early 1990s as deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis in the Treasury. And then:
HUBBARD: And then in the early 2000s, I was chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors and the principal economic advisor to the president.
That was Republican president George W. Bush. Later on, Hubbard was chief economic adviser to Mitt Romney on his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign.
HUBBARD: Yes, I was. And also for Jeb Bush in 2016.
DUBNER: So the question we’re asking in this episode is somewhat vague, intentionally, or at least open to interpretation. The question is “how much does the president of the United States matter?”
HUBBARD: Well, I think the president of the United States matters less and more than people think. Less meaning a low number on a scale of one to 10, because the overall economy is moved by very big factors. In technology, in globalization, in developments in consumer tastes, and so on. But a president has more influence than people think in the sense of the very large regulatory and administrative state which report to the president.
DUBNER: So most economic measures in the U.S. at the moment are strong, very strong, especially the stock markets. Labor markets are relatively strong, with slightly higher wage growth. And we’re about to enter the meat of a new presidential campaign, with obviously Trump as the incumbent. How much credit, not will, but should, Trump claim for this state of the economy?
HUBBARD: Well, I think President Trump can rightly claim some credit. When the beginning of his presidency happened, there was a shift in business people’s expectations about what was possible. There was a sense in which regulation and tax policy were going to become more favorable. Having said that, a lot of factors underlying economic growth happen whoever the president is.
DUBNER: In terms of Trump administration economic policy, everything ranging from the 2017 tax cuts to tariff and trade activity with China and elsewhere, I’d like you to name three things from the Trump administration that you approve of and three you disapprove of.
HUBBARD: In terms of approving, right at the very beginning, resetting expectations with businesspeople, that things were going to be different. The pop in the stock market and growth happened at that time. It was a different economic climate. Have to give the president credit for that. The Tax Cut and Jobs Act had many positive features. Now, it’s true that those weren’t necessarily the president’s own ideas, but without presidential leadership, you don’t get a tax bill. And then finally, confronting China at the 30,000-foot level, I agree with the president.
Where I disagree, and this would get to the second set you mentioned, on exactly how he confronted China. I think there, the trade policy has generated significant policy uncertainty. I also disagree with the administration’s views on immigration. I think immigration is a big positive for the American economy. And the third criticism is more the dog that didn’t bark. President Trump was elected by a group of people at the margin who felt left behind in the American economy. There’s so much we need to be doing for these people. And I don’t see any action from the administration.
DUBNER: You mentioned the uncertainty over the tariffs and trade war. I guess really the big question is, will the short-term pain and cost of the tariffs be worth it in the long run?
HUBBARD: Well, I think that is the real question. And that’s why I actually start by giving the president some credit. Previous administrations, Democrat or Republican, had not really confronted China as the elephant in the room. China really is the bad actor on the international economic stage that the president says it is. It is stealing intellectual property. It is not abiding by the rules of the World Trade Organization. That said, the question is, how do you deal with that kind of elephant in the room? I would have thought that one way to deal with it would be to get all of our allies together — the European Union, Japan, Canada, others with us, to confront China fundamentally. Does it belong in the W.T.O., the World Trade Organization? So I think tariffs were not the right tool.
DUBNER: What you’re describing is not the Trump way plainly, correct?
HUBBARD: Well, perhaps, but it would be a typical way to win a negotiation. You try to unite your friends and divide your enemies, not the other way around.
DUBNER: Why had so many past presidents been reluctant or even impotent to deal with China in this way?
HUBBARD: I think dealing with China is hard. First of all, there’s a lot of good there. The opening up of China to the modern world has been the world’s greatest anti-poverty program. Tens of millions of Chinese citizens have become less poor as a result of that openness. That is a good thing, and we shouldn’t forget it. We also shouldn’t forget that many American consumers have benefited a lot from trade with China. The question is strategically for the country going forward, with a lack of adherence to the W.T.O. rules and the theft of intellectual property, serious enough issues, I think they became more serious. And that’s why I give President Trump some credit in confronting them.
DUBNER: So in a Columbia Business School podcast where you were discussing business leadership, you were asked where stability ranks as a leadership trait. And you said, “A leader’s first and foremost characteristic is defining and illustrating the organization’s purpose. But he or she has to be a steady hand in doing that. Remember, people look up to the leader as a symbol of the organization. The job of a leader is not to run around with his or her head cut off.” Based on that assessment of yours, how would you rate President Trump as a leader of his branch of government?
HUBBARD: Well, I think President Trump’s leadership style is different from many leaders. I think in some respects he’s done a good job. He has articulated some very clear themes and tried to approach them. On the other hand, the vacillation in policy and the policy uncertainty is unsettling, just like it would be for employees in a company. So I think as with many people, there’s some strong leadership traits, to be sure, but others that at least I wouldn’t share.
DUBNER: In that same interview, you said this about politics: “My fear is at what point do people lose faith in the government that they have. And that is something one shouldn’t trifle with, because once lost, it’s very hard to get back.” Glenn, where do you think the U.S. stands now in terms of its citizenry’s faith in its federal government?
HUBBARD: I think the U.S. public, or at least swaths of it, are losing faith in the federal government’s ability to solve economic and overall domestic and foreign policy problems. And I think that’s a problem. Another manifestation of that problem is that the economic system we have that has delivered amazing innovation, changes in living standards, not only here but around the world, that economic system is not manna from heaven. It’s in part a political and social construct. If people start to lose faith in the system and in the government that provides guardrails around it, that becomes a first-order problem. That is my number-one concern at the moment.
It was nearly 10 years ago that we last asked this question, about how much the president matters. Barack Obama was nearly two years into his first term. He’d had some victories — a stimulus package and health-care reform — but in the 2010 midterm elections, the Democrats got slaughtered and lost the House. One of the people we spoke with for that episode was a Cornell law professor named Bernadette Meyler. She specializes in the Constitution and executive power. That conversation started like this:
DUBNER: It’s a cliché, but the president of the United States is regularly called the most powerful person on earth. What say you? Yes, no, maybe so?
MEYLER: No. Basically, the President of the United States is not the most powerful person. The president’s power is really constrained in a lot of different ways. And the president isn’t as significant as we imagine him or her to be.
Meyler has since moved on to Stanford. We got hold of her there and asked whether she still agreed with her 10-years-ago self:
MEYLER: I think that my view has shifted somewhat since we spoke. I think two things have changed significantly. One is that the increases in legislative gridlock have made it even harder to enact a legislative agenda. So presidents have moved towards doing more things through executive orders and sole executive action. Secondly, the fact that the filibuster for judicial nominees and for executive-branch nominees was abandoned, which now means that only a bare majority is required for confirmation in those positions, has changed the nature of presidential power regarding appointments and significantly increased that power.
DUBNER: On that note — presidential appointments — have the presidents and their administrations been actively trying to glean more power, or has that power been transferred or surrendered through some other consequences?
MEYLER: I think it’s a combination of the two. In terms of the confirmation process, that was up to the Senate to determine and ultimately they decided to get rid of the filibuster in that context. I think that was a mistake on the part of the Senate. But that was a legislative action.
A quick primer here: while the president has the power to nominate federal judges, they must be confirmed by the Senate. That used to require a supermajority — at least 60 of the 100 votes in the Senate. But in 2013, that changed. Barack Obama’s judicial nominees were facing Republican pushback; the Democrats had control of the Senate but not enough to muster a supermajority. So Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid used what had come to be known as the nuclear option.
Harry REID: It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.
The nuclear option got rid of the rule requiring a supermajority. Now only a simple majority would be required to confirm all federal judicial nominees except for the Supreme Court. Mitch McConnell, who was then the Senate minority leader, here’s what he said at the time:
Mitch MCCONNELL: I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle: you will regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.
Indeed, in the next election cycle, the Republicans took control of the Senate; and then in 2016 when the Republican Donald Trump was elected president, he had the power to confirm judges with a simple majority. And he has been using that power: just three years into his first term, Trump has gotten confirmed 50 appeals-court judges; Obama only got 55 during his entire two terms. One of every four sitting circuit-court judges is a Trump appointee. And then there’s the Supreme Court: in 2017, Mitch McConnell got rid of the supermajority requirement for that. And that’s helped make possible the confirmation of two Trump nominees to the Supreme Court: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. And so, as Bernadette Meyler argues, presidential power has certainly increased when it comes to judiciary appointments. But, she says, that’s not the only avenue through which presidential power has been consolidated lately.
MEYLER: Obama, I think, did aggrandize executive power to some extent. He wound up making a lot of determinations through his executive cabinet and other executive-branch processes.
During his two terms, Barack Obama issued 276 executive orders. There is nothing extraordinary about that number: George Bush issued 291, Bill Clinton 254. President Trump has so far issued 138, keeping him roughly on or perhaps a bit ahead of that pace. But there is a great variance in the reach of a given executive order. It can be something as simple as a statement of intention or some sort of ceremonial proclamation; or it can essentially create policy without having to bother going through the legislative branch. Obama, frustrated with a Republican majority in Congress that he saw as needlessly obstinate, he often chose the latter.
Barack OBAMA: We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.
Obama’s appetite for executive action was fairly omnivorous.
MEYLER: With respect to climate change, he made a lot of executive orders, and he also entered the Paris agreement as president rather than trying to negotiate a treaty, which would probably have been impossible. He also extended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was a decision by the executive branch not to enforce some of the immigration laws against people who had come to the country as children. So I think that Obama did aggregate more power into the executive branch, which then also meant that a lot of his actions could be undone subsequently by President Trump.
DUBNER: So Barack Obama is nothing if not a thoughtful and intelligent human. So it’s impossible for me to reckon that he wouldn’t have thought through the consequences of aggregating that power, through the use of executive orders and sole executive action and so on. So what do you think was the plan there, or the idea?
MEYLER: Yeah, I think that’s a fascinating question and it’s something that I have thought a bit about. One thing that he said with respect to the Affordable Care Act is that it established a baseline. And I think his view was that you couldn’t go back from that baseline. I think that was the motivation behind presenting something like DACA or entering into the Paris agreement. I think his view was that these baselines would be very hard to dial back. It hasn’t really proved as hard as I think he imagined. I definitely think it has increased the extent to which Trump could claim some form of bipartisan legitimacy for his action, that he can claim that he’s just acting as a Democratic president would.
And I think that’s particularly the case with something like DACA where he can say, “Well, I don’t think it was constitutional in the first place, so I’m going to get rid of it. And I’m not exercising extra discretion. It’s just what Obama had done previously.” Another example that occurs to me is the national monuments. So he reduced the national monuments in Utah more than any president has reduced national monuments previously. And his claim was, “Well, it was just some Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, who created these large monuments and prevented people in Utah from using their land in the way that they would have liked to. So I’m just undoing the wrong that these earlier presidents did.”
DUBNER: I’d like you to compare President Trump’s declarations of intent, whether they were things he said during the campaign or during his time in office, with his actual accomplishments.
MEYLER: I think he’s generally tried to do the things that he claimed he would do. He’s definitely made immigration a big hinge of his presidency, as he had said he would. I think he’s lived up to promises to the coal plants and various other energy-industry constituencies to dial back environmental regulation. And then also on the tax front, he managed to undermine the Affordable Care Act through the law that was passed to get rid of basically the tax that would have supported the Affordable Care Act.
DUBNER: And how typical would you say that is for recent presidents? Again, the gap between declarations of intent and accomplishments.
MEYLER: I would say he’s been average. I don’t feel that he’s been extraordinarily effective. He had touted passing a lot of laws early in his presidency. But the Pew Foundation did a study and showed that while the number of laws were, say, greater than the prior Congress, a lot of those laws were symbolic and there weren’t that many major legislative accomplishments.
DUBNER: It strikes me that Trump kind of has put the bully back in the bully pulpit, that he’s behaving demonstratively in ways that past presidents haven’t in a long time. And I’m curious, your views on that.
MEYLER: Yes, I love this metaphor of the bully pulpit as applied to Trump, I would not have thought of that. But I — yes, I completely agree. He has put the bully back in bully pulpit. My feeling is that there could be a positive dimension to reinvigorating the symbolic and the rhetorical power of the presidency. Now, I mean, I really dislike everything that Trump does and all of his tweets and excess. But the way that he’s managed to actually use social media to galvanize people and to try to unify his base around an agenda, I think is instructive for other potential leaders.
I think one problem with President Obama’s strategy was that he didn’t really appeal enough to people and to people’s ordinary moral intuitions in order to get them to support his agenda. I think people felt that his presidency was too bureaucratic or too technocratic so that he wasn’t really taking advantage of the possibility of galvanizing a public.
Just for the historical record, I want to clarify something here. It was President Teddy Roosevelt who coined the phrase “bully pulpit” as a description of the Presidency. And Roosevelt took great delight in using the bully pulpit. But back then, the word “bully” had an additional usage — as an adjective that meant “good” or even “great.” That’s what Roosevelt meant by calling the presidency a “bully pulpit” — that it was a great platform to get things done. Not that you could use the presidency to bully people into submission. Okay? Okay.
DUBNER: If you could just in a nutshell, tell us — the president has the greatest leverage in which realms, and the weakest or least leverage in which realms?
MEYLER: I would say the president has the greatest leverage when you’re dealing with foreign affairs. So that’s one reason why he could get out of the Paris agreement, that he’s negotiating in various ways with other countries, with China about tariffs. Another area is in the administrative state. And there, it’s not only by direct command, but also by retaining the power to fire people. And the Supreme Court has gradually been making the president’s power over subordinates in the administrative branch more plenary, and saying that it’s not constitutional to restrict in various ways. And then another prominent area in the Trump administration would be the power of pardoning, which he’s been using to great strategic advantage.
DUBNER: Can the president constitutionally pardon him or herself if required?
MEYLER: I don’t think so. I think that goes back to a limitation implicit in the concept of pardoning itself, which has to do with the common-law precept that you can’t be a judge in your own case.
DUBNER: Okay. And then some realms in which the president is maybe weaker than the average person might think?
MEYLER: So one really important realm is with respect to budgeting. Congress really is acknowledged to have the power of the purse and that does constrain what the executive branch can do. One example, I think, where Trump really attempted to make a strong push for greater executive power is with respect to the National Emergencies Act. When Congress refused to grant him the money to build his border wall, he decided to appropriate the money from the defense budget and transfer that money under a claim of authority through the National Emergencies Act, even though Congress had pretty explicitly said that they didn’t want to give him money for that project.
DUBNER: So one hallmark of the Trump presidency has been deregulation. And he argued that one hallmark of the Obama administration was heavy regulation. So can you talk for a moment about the degree of power or leverage in the realm of regulation for presidents — again, whether through executive order or legislation or just not enforcing existing regulations.
MEYLER: So I think it’s a lot easier for a president to destroy than to create. And to undo prior actions than to pass a new agenda proactively. I think that Trump has benefited a lot from not enforcing things. The example that comes to mind for me is the Affordable Care Act, where it took Obama so much political energy and will to pass the Affordable Care Act. And that was the main, I would say, regulatory reform of his administration. Whereas it doesn’t take that much to not enforce a lot of its provisions.
DUBNER: So of the three branches of government, which would you argue has gained the most power and lost the most power over the past, let’s say, two decades?
MEYLER: I think that the judiciary has gained the most power.
MEYLER: Because with the impasse in the legislative branch, almost all questions of significance are getting decided by the judiciary. And it means that Congress lacks the ability to really override judicial decisions because they just can’t agree on enough. So, for example, with a lot of these administrative questions, previously Congress might have been able to, say, clarify the meaning of a statute that an administrative agency is implementing by passing some kind of further legislation. But now they’re not really able to do that. So most of these questions wind up getting resolved ultimately by the Supreme Court.
DUBNER: Now, I know that you personally clerked some time back, I believe it was for Judge Robert Katzman, the U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, is that right?
DUBNER: So assure me that you are not exercising your personal judiciary bias in claiming that the judiciary has gained the most leverage over the past — so you’re going to claim that this is an unbiased assessment of the three branches and that judiciary has gained even more the executive, yes?
MEYLER I think so, yes. And I mean, I actually wish it weren’t the case. Because there was a whole movement in constitutional law, to de-center courts. And actually, Obama was obviously a constitutional law professor before becoming president — and he was, I think, on board with a lot of the idea about bringing the legislative branch and the executive more into the realm of constitutional interpretation and de-centering courts. And I think that’s why he partly didn’t prioritize judicial nominations. But my sense is that that just pragmatically was a mistake because in fact, the courts have wound up being the branch to decide on a lot of things precisely because the other branches just can’t get along well enough.
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DUBNER: So when we last spoke, the topic was whether the U.S. presidency had become, or was on its way to becoming, a dictatorship or something similar to that. I’d love you to just quickly summarize your view back then.
POSNER: My view back then was that we had developed a system of what I prefer to call presidential primacy. There are certain elements of dictatorship in it, in the sense that the president has primary authority to determine policy in a wide variety of areas. And I think this is a system that’s evolved over two centuries. It’s not the system that the founders gave us.
Eric Posner is a law professor at the University of Chicago; he’s one of the most-cited legal scholars of this era. We last spoke with Posner back in 2016 for an episode called “Has the U.S. Presidency Become a Dictatorship?” His answer wasn’t a hard yes, but he was wary of how much power the executive branch had been accruing.
DUBNER: So would you say that the intensity or level of what you’re calling the primacy has increased, stayed roughly the same, or diminished?
POSNER: Roughly the same.
DUBNER: Now, we also should say, when we spoke, a bit over three years ago, we had a good bit of conversation about Donald Trump. But it was all theoretical, because it was highly, highly unlikely, at the time, or thought to be highly unlikely, that he would be elected. So I’d just love to hear you for a minute on how surprised you were and how that perhaps changed the way that you thought about this question largely.
POSNER: I was surprised. And how has it changed the way I think about the question? Well, let’s separate two dimensions of the question. One is, what is the system that we have, and the other is, should we change it? I think the system that we have is the same as it was before Trump became president. And I am more worried now than I was before he became president that the public would elect people who are unfit to be president. So in that sense, my view has changed to some extent.
DUBNER: The implication there is that you believe he is unfit to be president, or am I overreaching?
POSNER: No, I do think he’s unfit.
DUBNER: So here’s my theory: is that the president matters much less than most people think, chiefly because the president’s ability to make substantial changes that directly affect our lives, daily lives, is in most cases limited or indirect. Plainly you disagree. Give me an example or two of where I’m wrong.
POSNER: Well, I think part of the problem is what does it mean to “matter?” That’s just tricky. And I agree with you, for example, that the president can’t come in and revolutionize our system, can’t make the economy grow much faster, or cause a recession. But where the president matters, for example: law-enforcement priorities, whether the police go after drug users or drug dealers, immigration policy, as we’ve seen recently. So if you’re an American citizen and all of your friends and family and others are Americans, you might not notice the effect that the president can have on aliens, whether they’re here lawfully or not. But that’s a pretty big effect the president can have. And then in the area of foreign policy, as we’ve seen recently, the president can really change things very rapidly.
DUBNER: If I were to ask you to break down the job of president into the major domains, how would you label them?
POSNER: Foreign policy is one domain. Maybe we’ll call the economy the other. Management of the executive branch is maybe a third dimension.
DUBNER: And then do we want to have another basket that’s something like domestic affairs? Everything non-economic?
POSNER: We could have a basket for that. I mean, a lot of people put a lot of weight on the president’s appointment of judges, which is outside of the executive branch.
DUBNER: So let’s go through. And let’s start with the economy. If I were to just ask you, in the three-plus years that President Trump has been in office, how much his actions have affected what we call the economy, and what specifically he’s done, let me just ask you to speak on that for a bit.
POSNER: The corporate tax cut probably provided a short-term boost of no real lasting value. But that had an effect on people. The deregulation that he’s engaging in probably won’t have a measurable effect on the economy, but will affect people’s lives. In particular, he’s been dismantling regulations that were designed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. So the long-term effect of that is meaningful. And then I think this ridiculous trade war he’s started has generated uncertainty and of course has increased costs for imported products.
DUBNER: Would you have predicted that the markets and the economy generally, as evidenced by unemployment, would be as healthy as they are? And if not, what’s that say about either his leverage or maybe just our inability to predict anything?
POSNER: I think that’s well-established in the literature, that generally the economy does what it does. And presidents will affect it only on the margin. In the case of the deregulatory actions that I told you about — well, very few of them have actually been put into effect. They’re working their way through the bureaucracy, they’re being challenged by courts. I should also say that the positive effect of deregulation will be on pure economic indicators, but there will be non-economic harms that aren’t going to show up in some kind of aggregate measure like G.D.P. or something like that. So if we’re going to have more greenhouse-gas emissions, they’re going to show up 10, 20, 50 years from now when the climate is somewhat hotter than it would be otherwise.
DUBNER: Okay, let’s talk about foreign affairs then. Name some signature decisions, moves or non-moves, that President Trump has made.
POSNER: Withdrawal from the Paris treaty, disengagement from security arrangements with foreign countries, the beginning of the trade war, and cutting back on refugees and other types of immigration.
DUBNER: And you didn’t even get into North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Israel, right?
POSNER: Yeah. In those cases, he is sort of floundering around more. It’s a little unclear what he’s trying to accomplish.
DUBNER: So, the impeachment of President Trump has revolved around his withholding of foreign aid to Ukraine. What can you tell us about the president’s unilateral ability to manage foreign aid?
POSNER: Foreign aid is determined by Congress, but the president has power to withhold it. Typically, the way these things work is, if Congress wants to do something with respect to foreign relations, it will pass a law saying we want X, Y, Z to happen. But then there will almost always be a provision that says that if the president thinks it’s in the national interest not to do this, he can do that. The Constitution is extremely vague about where foreign policy powers are located. It gives the president the commander-in-chief power. Not clear whether that means only the power to lead the army or whether it’s something broader than that. So this vagueness was taken advantage of by presidents over the many years that followed. And they basically claimed more and more power over foreign policy and Congress acquiesced.
DUBNER Let’s move on to, as you put it, management of the executive branch. What falls under the label of management of the executive branch?
POSNER Appointing members of the executive branch and setting the policy of the executive branch. I think this has not really received that much media attention, but he’s really changed the priorities of the various immigration agencies. They’re much stricter than they used to be. And he’s done this through dozens of, I guess, executive orders or regulatory actions.
One Trump executive order that got a lot of attention, and pushback, was the so-called Muslim immigration ban. It effectively directed the Department of Homeland Security to refuse entry into the U.S. of nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
POSNER: Initially, the lower courts struck it down because it was sloppy and kind of stupid. He revised it.
The revision included some countries that weren’t predominantly Muslim: North Korea and Venezuela.
POSNER: They struck it down again. And they were reversed by the Supreme Court. I think most legal scholars were surprised that Trump had as much trouble as he did, because there is a statute that says that the president can pretty much block anyone from entering into the country for any reason, if he believes that it advances national security.
I next asked Eric Posner the same question I’d asked Bernadette Meyler, about Trump and the power of the bully pulpit.
POSNER: The bully pulpit is extremely important. It’s the way that the president gets the public behind him. And he needs the public behind him to get Congress to act. If the president really wants to have a significant long-term impact, there’s a limit to what he can do unilaterally. But if he has the public behind him, he can get Congress to pass laws. But there’s a big difference between the way Trump has used the bully pulpit and I think, really, all previous presidents.
All previous presidents, I’m going to hazard, they used the bully pulpit to try to unify the country. They tried to convince the public that some new policy serves everybody’s interests, and everybody should support it. Trump is not like that. He uses the bully pulpit to divide people. Immigration is an important example, where he disparages not only undocumented immigrants, but also more broadly, Hispanics, Muslims from other countries, and in a winking way sometimes signals support for white nationalists or white supremacists.
DUBNER: So, as you’re speaking, it strikes me there maybe needs to be one more basket of presidential activities that we’re ranking. This president has been aggressive, not just in language, but in action — as have other presidents, to be fair. But this president has gotten inside the head of a lot of people; he’s done many things to create anxiety and anger. So if we were to consider presidential behavior, or carriage, another category — how much do you think that really matters?
POSNER: There are all these people who go back and rate presidents. And people have even rated how virtuous they are, how honest they are and so forth. And the worst presidents — Warren Harding, for example — they’re not in Trump’s league. Harding was kind of a weakling who didn’t try to stop other corrupt people in his cabinet, even once he knew about it. But he wasn’t a dishonest person in his private life. He was just pretty much an ordinary politician. We’ve got someone in the presidency who’s a liar, dishonest, who’s— he’s a philanderer. Some presidents have been like that, but not that many. What effect does it have? It makes a lot of people angry. It sort of contributes to the polarization. Does it damage the presidency in some long-term way? Maybe. I’m not sure about that.
DUBNER: So let’s, maybe we should call this category “virtue.” Do you think it’s substantial enough to be separate, or not quite?
POSNER: I think it deserves its own category, because it’s important to distinguish Trump from any old regular Republican president. So Republican presidents come into office, they cut taxes. They deregulate. And in many respects, he’s no different from that. But in this special category, what he does in all the other categories, is, he warps public policy to advance his narrow political interest at the expense of his political opponents, in a way that’s damaging.
DUBNER: So here are a couple sentences that you wrote not long ago. “It is critical to distinguish Trump’s bark from his bite. He has disparaged judges, called the media ‘the enemy of the people,’ praised torture, and compared the intelligence community to Nazis. But he has not followed up on these statements,” you write. “Unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, he hasn’t tried to pack the Supreme Court. Not that Trump needs to,” you added. “Unlike Barack Obama,” you wrote, “he hasn’t (yet) targeted journalists in leak investigations.” “Unlike George W. Bush,” you wrote, “he hasn’t actually taken a page from the Nazis by ordering the intelligence community to use coercive interrogation.” So again, thinking in terms of leverage or how much the president matters, it sounds like you’re describing someone that’s positioning themselves as an attack dog, but is actually a watchdog, if not a lapdog.
POSNER: I wouldn’t call Trump a lapdog. Trump’s most aggressive behavior, I think, has been in international relations. He’s really attacked a bipartisan consensus in favor of free trade, American military engagement. And in fact, the Republicans seem to be, although muted, as unhappy about this as Democrats are. From just a narrowly constitutional perspective, he does seem less aggressive than his predecessors. Which is not to say at all that he’s a better president. I think he’s far worse than any of his predecessors. But in a way, this is what my point has been all along — which is, the presidents we like often are the really powerful ones who break the rules, because those rules are out of date and old-fashioned and reflect values that we no longer agree with.
DUBNER: Let’s say a given person feels that Trump is as bad a president as could possibly exist, given the norms of American politics. Even if you believe that — and then you look around at how the country is now and probably will be in five and ten years, can you really make the argument that the president, him- or herself, matters so much? Because if one believes this is the worst president ever, shouldn’t the country have suffered much, much more already? Or perhaps you’re arguing it may, and we can’t tell yet.
POSNER: Well, he can be the worst president ever without being infinitely worse than the second-worst. Being a bad president is not the same thing as having an impact. So you could say someone’s the worst president ever and still think that presidents in general don’t have much of an impact. I mean, we could have a president who is like a declared fascist who still didn’t accomplish very much. It’s just— it’s hard to say in the abstract what it means to have an impact. If you think, for example, that climate change is the absolutely most essential issue of our time, and what Trump has done is moved us back several years at a really important time, then maybe he will be the worst and most consequential president ever. But if you don’t think climate change rises to that level of importance, then he’ll seem like he had less of an impact.
DUBNER: But there are other variables in that formula. For instance, climate change, it seems, is starting to be addressed aggressively and often well by technological solutions and breakthroughs that are the result of millions of people working on thousands of different projects. Obviously, the president could do something about that for good, he could also do something about it for ill. But again, it comes back, to me, to the leverage of this one person or this one office. It’s very comforting to think that one person can make things great or terrible. It goes back to Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history. And I think there is a kind of religious connotation there, when we assign that much power to one person or one office, I think it in some way alleviates some of the pressure or responsibility for ourselves as individuals. But I’m perfectly satisfied with you not buying that one iota.
POSNER: No, I think people are worried about the president being too powerful, and don’t take comfort in the idea that one person — for example, destroyed the entire world by launching a nuclear war. So I’m not sure I agree with you. If the question is how much effect can the national government, whether controlled by the president or someone else, realistically have on people’s lives? Ah! I don’t even know how to begin to answer that question. I mean, it could, if it wanted to, destroy everybody’s life. But if we look throughout history, sometimes it’s had enormous effect, and sometimes it’s had no effect. And I guess I find it hard to assign a number in the abstract.
But we did ask Eric Posner and Bernadette Meyler and Glenn Hubbard to assign a number, on a scale of one to 10, for how much the president “matters,” for each of the major domains we’ve been talking about today. You’ll hear Posner first, then Meyler, then Hubbard. We’ll start with … the economy.
MEYLER: I would say seven.
HUBBARD: I would say, one to 10, the president matters six or seven for the economy.
How about foreign policy?
POSNER: Let’s call it seven.
HUBBARD: Foreign policy, the president matters nine to 10.
Management of the executive branch:
POSNER: Let’s call it six.
HUBBARD: For management of the executive branch, I would put the president at five to six. It is the president’s branch, but so much of that management is done by cabinet officers.
Control over the judiciary:
HUBBARD: Eight to 10. If the president is fortunate enough to have a Senate that agrees with him or her, then that’s control.
How about domestic affairs, including the bully pulpit:
MEYLER: Two or three.
HUBBARD: I would give that a seven. I think economists might generally say not so important, but I would say yes, important. People look to a leader as a gauge of mood, of what’s going on in the country. That would be true in any organization.
And finally, as we agreed to call the final category, virtue:
MEYLER: I would say nine.
HUBBARD: I would give it a seven. I think virtue matters a lot. Certainly matters a lot to me personally. But I can also think of virtuous presidents that weren’t terribly effective.
DUBNER: For instance?
HUBBARD: Jimmy Carter.
DUBNER: And can you think of people who were a little scoundrel-y on the virtue scale that were very effective presidents?
HUBBARD: I would put Richard Nixon in that category.
DUBNER: And where would you put Clinton in that category?
HUBBARD: Clinton would definitely be an effective person who had some virtue challenges.
If you were to assume equal weighting of all the categories — a terrible idea if you’re trying to come up with a remotely scientific answer, which this is not — you’d find Eric Posner saying the president “matters” about six-and-two-thirds on a scale of 1 to 10; Bernadette Myler: a hair above seven; and Glenn Hubbard, just shy of seven-and-a-half. So: fairly consistent rankings from our experts — although quite a lot of inconsistency within categories. But also, that number is fairly well short of a 9 or 10 ranking. Which is to say that: yes, the presidency of the United States is an obviously powerful position, with more power having accrued, perhaps, in recent decades. But is it possible that maybe, just maybe, some of us sometimes slightly overemphasize just how much leverage the president has? I’m going to let you answer that question for yourself.
Once you’ve calmed down a bit, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell us just how infuriating this episode was. But do try to calm down a bit first. Because things are only going to get rockier through election day. And there’s new evidence suggesting that elections are particularly difficult for a lot of people. The economists Hung-Hao Chang and Chad Meyerhoefer, in a working paper called “Do Elections Make You Sick?,” found that healthcare use and expenditure rose nearly 20 percent during national presidential elections in Taiwan. So, please take care of yourself.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, Daphne Chen, Matt Hickey, and Corinne Wallace. Our intern is Isabel O’Brien. The music you hear throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Glenn Hubbard, professor of finance and economics at Columbia University.
- Bernadette Meyler, professor of law at Stanford University.
- Eric Posner, professor of law at the University of Chicago.
- “Do Elections Make You Sick?” by Hung-Hao Chang and Chad Meyerhoefer (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2020).