3 comments August 16th, 2007at 11:50am Posted by Eli

Hey, good news, everybody! The president isn’t important!

How much does the President of the United States really matter?


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.

Well, I guess if you think stuff like wars, torture, domestic spying, international relations, the environment/global warming, food safety, worker safety, disaster response, the judiciary, separation of powers, and the politicization (and basic competence) of government are minor, and that the president has no effect on the economy at all (I guess Clinton was just lucky, and the Bushes were unlucky, right?), then I guess maybe they have a point. But even if you grant that the president has little effect on the economy, that’s an awfully narrow view.

Maybe all a “good” president has to do is not actively fuck things up – a ficas tree would be a huge improvement over what we have now.

(h/t Adam Conner)

Entry Filed under: Bush,Economy,Media,Wankers


  • 1. elmo  |  August 16th, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    Uh, and just who sold all our debt to China? What a moron.

  • 2. polishifter  |  August 16th, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    I can’t believe that guy wrote that post. Isn’t he the best selling author of “Freakonomics”? I’ve never read the book but if it’s anything like his post I deffinately won’t read it.

    I can only think that he is on vacation and he had an intern ghost write for him.

    I think one could have made the argument more so that “The President Doesn’t Matter” Pre-2000 than they can now.

    Bush has near absolute power. No one can stop him. His policies have been a complete drag on the country from cutting taxes on the wealthy elite, returning us to deficit spending, denying global warming, not to mention all the stuff you mentioned (spying, torure etc)

    I’m all for jus tplacing a Ficas tree in the oval office. At least them we might get some checks and balances…depeding on who the vice-President is…

  • 3. Eli  |  August 16th, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    I assume this is the same guy(s). I seem to remember them making an unorthodox but intriguing claim that I reacted favorably to, but I can’t remember what it was.

    Just as well – it was probably garbage.

    They also kinda gloss over the fact that the president’s power is greatly magnified if the other two branches are willing to rubberstamp everything he does, which is pretty much the case for the first six years of Bush’s (but not Clinton’s) tenure, and apparently beyond.

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