Are presidents to blame for bad economies?
by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Former president Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign strategist, the colorful James Carville, crystallized a basic building block of
presidential politics in telling Democratic campaign workers what issues to focus on.
“The economy, stupid” Carville reportedly snapped.
In popular culture the utterance has lengthened:
“It’s the economy, stupid.”
It’s a hard utterance to refute.
Presidencies have risen and fallen the state of the nation’s economy.
Shanty towns of the unemployed during the 1930s were called “Hoovervilles,” derisive salutes to the perceived failed economic policies of Republican President Herbert Hoover.
More recently, the searing image of former Republican President George H. W. Bush standing in amazement before a modern electronic check-out counter probably did little to increase the confidence Americans felt in his ability to lead the country out of recession.
That voters left up to Bill Clinton.
Republicans today are quick to blame Democratic President Barack Obama for the country’s economic ills.
But is it fair to blame presidents for the state of the economy?
And is it realistic to expect them to fix a damaged one?
University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute Professor Jay Kiedrowski, who specializes in federal, state , and local public finances, views
presidential power in terms of the economy as finite.
“The blame or the credit is really quite limited,” he said.
Presidents can cushion the impact of a bad economy — Obama signed legislation extending the payroll tax cut and emergency jobless
benefits, for instance — but Kiedrowski views larger economic trends overshadowing the Oval Office.
Kiedrowski views the country’s current economic upheaval in part stemming from a shift in America’s economic base from industrial to information technology.
America supplies the world with Facebook, movies, and other technologies, but the more traditional manufacturing base has shrunk.
“The transition is tough,” he said.
Other presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt, have presided over similar periods of economic ground shifts, Kiedrowski explained.
In Roosevelt’s case the economy was shifting from agrarian to industrial.
For all of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs of the 1930s it took the economic thrust of World War II to really snap the country out of the Great Depression, he explained.
Unlike Roosevelt, Republican President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s had a laissez-faire approach to the nation’s booming economy.
Nonetheless, on “Black Thursday”, Oct. 24, 1929, the stock market crashed.
Kiedrowski expects the current economy to improve, but slowly.
“We’re going to be lucky if it’s slow,” he said.
Others stress the global nature of the economy, the ability of economic occurrences in distant lands to send shock waves around the globe.
One Humphrey Institute professor said decisions German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes in regard to debt-plagued Greece can have as
much impact on the political fortune of Obama as events in America.
But Bill Blazar, Senior Vice President and Public Affairs and Business Development official for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, views voters angst directed at presidents over the economy as not illogical.
“Nobody has complete control over it,” said Blazar of the economy.
Still, presidents probably have more control than anybody else, he argued.
“I think business people appreciate the fact the president (Obama) has tried,” said Blazar of Obama’s attempts at improving the economy.
Yet business people question the president’s depth of knowledge in regard to the workings of business, especially small business, Blazar explained.
The president proposes programs aimed at encouraging business to hire.
But if the orders aren’t coming in, why would a business hire new employees? Blazar questioned.
DFL State Party Chairman Ken Martin indicated that while presidents do not control the economy, they can influence it.
“No doubt a president can have an impact,” said Martin, arguing Obama has been successful at turning around the economic “mess” inherited from the Bush Administration.
But Humphrey Institute Professor Harry Boyte, who specializes in civic engagement and international democracy promotion, argues a kind of “dysfunctional dynamic” grips the country in terms the economy and presidents.
To expect Obama, or Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, to reverse the fortunes of the country is irrational, Boyte argues.
In either case, under such expectations, voters are bound to be disappointed, he argued.
Instead of looking to the Oval Office for all the solutions, voters — citizens — should look to themselves, their neighbors, their
communities, Boyte argues.
In terms of local elective office leadership, Boyte points to Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz as an example of rational leadership.
Kautz flatly says she can’t solve the city’s problems by herself, said Boyte.
Instead, she actively tries drawing in city residents, he explained.
Too many Americans wrongheadedly look to, and expect, presidents to solve all the problems, Boyte argues.
The dynamic reminds him of the famous line in the long running comic strip “Pogo,” he explained.
“‘We have met the enemy and he is us,’” he said.