Control, accountability, and constraints: rethinking perceptions of presidential responsibility for the economy.

Author:Kane, John V.
Position:Report
 
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To the extent that people view the economy as headed in the right direction come fall of 2016, it certainly accrues to [candidate Hillary] Clinton's benefit. Because to one degree or another, she'll be tied to Obama. And the president, in large part, owns the economy. --Washington Post, April 2015

I think the world vests too much power--certainly in the president, probably in Washington in general--for its influence on the economy, because most all of the economy has nothing to do with the government.

--Austan Goolsbee, former Chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers

A specter has long haunted the fortunes of American presidents--the specter of the national economy. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that the economy matters for presidential approval and election outcomes (Duch and Stevenson 2008; Erikson, Mackuen, and Stimson 2002; Fiorina 1981; Gronke and Newman 2009; Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2000; Mueller 1970; Tufte 1980; Vavreck 2009). Indeed, there are essentially no limits on the extent to which presidents can be publicly credited or blamed for economic conditions by other elites, nor are there any rules constraining the public claims political elites can make regarding presidents' lone ability to effect desired economic outcomes. The state of the national economy, in other words, is more than just fair game for evaluating presidents--it is quite often the game.

When it comes to discussing the economy in an electoral context, for example, presidential candidates regularly engage in glib, grandiose claims as a means of improving their respective electoral chances (e.g., see Vavreck 2009). In the opening moments of the second presidential debate of 2012, for example, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was asked by a college student for reassurance that he will be able to find employment upon graduating. After noting the poor state of the economy under President Barack Obama's tenure, candidate Romney boldly stated, "When you [graduate] in 2014--I presume I'm going to be president--I'm going to make sure you get a job." (1) Despite their boldness, Romney's claims did not provoke much controversy, likely because such claims possess an all-too-familiar character. That is, they lay blame for present economic conditions squarely upon the incumbent president while boasting of the challenger's superior ability to singlehandedly manage the economy. And, what is a crucial point, such rhetoric deliberately omits any mention of the myriad constraints modern presidents inevitably face in trying to steer the course of the national economy.

Indeed, in the world's largest market economy, with multiple sources of power determining domestic policy making, presidents regularly encounter formidable limitations on their ability to influence economic outcomes (Blinder and Watson 2014; Franzese 2002; Golden and Poterba 1980). We thus find ourselves in a puzzling situation where the national economy matters far more for the fortunes of presidents than may actually be warranted by reality (e.g., see Thomas E. Mann's comments in Gross 2008; Newman 2013). In addressing this conundrum, scholars have typically concluded that this phenomenon occurs because the president is viewed as the "nation's chief economic manager" (quoted in Newman 2013, 870), and citizens simply act on this perception when answering opinion polls or come Election Day (Lewis-Beck et al. 2008, 381-82). (2) But in accepting this assessment as an immutable fact of American political life, scholars have heretofore been somewhat reluctant to ask the more fundamental question: where might this widely shared (mis)perception of presidential responsibility for the national economy come from? (3)

Cognizant of the importance of presidential campaigns as a major source of political and economic information for the general public (Gelman and King 1993; Sears and Valentino 1997; Vavreck 2009), this study is among the first to directly explore whether the candidate claims we commonly observe--as well as claims we fail to observe--in presidential campaigns may be responsible for citizens' perceptions of the extent to which the presidency is responsible for national economic outcomes. Using a survey experiment designed to circumvent partisan, ideological, and topical considerations, this study expands upon important recent scholarship (see Newman 2013; Sirin and Villalobos 2011) by directly measuring (1) the extent to which the public believes that presidents control national economic outcomes and (2) the extent to which the public believes that presidents should be credited or blamed (i.e., held accountable) for national economic conditions. Paradoxically, I find that the public appears inclined to credit or blame presidents for the economy to a significantly greater extent than it perceives presidents to actually control the economy. Second, the findings consistently suggest that, while the selfserving claims of presidential candidates do not themselves appear capable of significantly influencing perceptions of presidential responsibility for the economy, the omission of information regarding constraints presidents face enables perceptions of presidential responsibility to remain significantly higher than would otherwise be the case. A discussion of the implications of these findings and avenues for future research concludes the paper.

The President and the Economy

There exists a compelling, yet complex relationship between politics and economic performance, and this relationship has a variety of important consequences for politicians. As Gomez and Wilson (2006, 129) observe, "That citizens hold elected officials accountable for fluctuations in the economy has become a truism of political life." This "truism" manifests itself in myriad ways, particularly for presidents. Forecasting models of presidential elections, for example, commonly include a measure of economic performance to predict election outcomes (e.g., Abramowitz 1988; Erikson and Wlezien 2012), and a wealth of research highlights the disproportionate influence of recent economic conditions on presidential election outcomes (Achen and Bartels 2004b; Bartels 2008; Campbell 2000, 127-31; Eisenberg and Ketcham 2004; Erikson and Wlezien 2008; Erikson, Mackuen, and Stimson 2002; Hibbs 1987, 182-83). According to theories of retrospective economic voting, voters electorally reward or punish an incumbent administration for economic performance and, in so doing, they are in some sense communicating whether the administration has "performed poorly or well" (Fiorina 1981, 5; Peffley 1984), though some evidence suggests that dissatisfaction with the economy may weigh more heavily than satisfaction (Bloom and Price 1975). (4) Similarly, research has consistently found that public approval of presidents is heavily dependent upon the current state of the national economy (Erikson, Mackuen, and Stimson 2002; Hibbs, Rivers, and Vasilatos 1982; MacKuen, Erikson, and Stimson 1992; Mueller 1970; Norpoth 1985). Moreover, presidential approval is itself predictive of election outcomes (Abramowitz 1988; Brody and Sigelman 1983; Lewis-Beck and Rice 1982; MacKuen 1983; Sigelman 1979).

Thus, the essential consensus is that the public holds presidents accountable for their performance in effecting desired economic outcomes, which suggests that a vast portion of the general public operates on the assumption that presidents have the capacity to significantly control the country's economic performance (Gomez and Wilson 2001). Indeed, one may easily observe the frequency with which public opinion polls, media reports and even scholars habitually refer to a given president's "management" or "handling" of the economy.

While there is therefore little doubt that the economy is consequential for presidents' electoral fortunes, the effect that presidents actually have on the economy is far less certain. In other words, to what extent do presidents "control" the economy? In fact, this is a terrifically complicated question, one that Bartels (2008, 42) has suggested would require "a small army of economists" to begin to answer it, whereas McGraw (1991, 1134) implies that establishing such a causal link is "generally impossible." Perhaps as a symptom of this inherent complexity, accounts of the relationship between the presidency and the economy commonly leave the distinction between (1) the extent to which a president alone can actually effect desired economic outcomes and (2) the extent to which citizens happen to believe a president can effect desired economic outcomes, conspicuously underexamined. (5)

Presidents, with their own ideological predilections and respective judgment in selecting economic advisors, are unlikely to be of zero consequence for economic outcomes. A vast body of research on "political business cycles" has suggested that presidents may attempt to strategically manipulate the economy during election years in the interest of electoral gain, though evidence for this is mixed (Achen and Bartels 2004b; Franzese 2002; Golden and Poterba 1980; Tufte 1980). Moreover, various studies have argued that, due in part to differential prioritization of economic problems--for example, unemployment versus inflation--Democratic and Republican administrations have presided over significantly different rates of economic growth since World War II, with the former proving better at reducing overall economic inequality (Bartels 2008; Hibbs 1987). However, in a comprehensive study of presidential economic performance since WWII, economists Blinder and Watson (2014) find no evidence for the claim that superior macroeconomic performance under Democratic presidents vis-a-vis Republican presidents can be attributed to better macroeconomic policies--instead, favorable international economic climates and "good luck," among other factors, appear to better account for the Democratic advantage.

Moreover, certain...

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