Presidents and the Economy

Charles Krauthammer takes a break from writing about the war to attack one of my favorite pet peeves: the idea that presidents control the economy.

“Bill Clinton and Al Gore created 22 million new jobs.” So says Democratic National Committee chief Terry McAuliffe and just about every Democrat alive. How can anyone believe this? Clinton did not create any jobs. Bill Gates did. Andy Grove did. Jeff Bezos did. In fact, they created an industry. The ’90s were a decade when the silicon chip met the “peace dividend”–billions saved by the ending of the cold war — and gave us an economic boom. Clinton deserves credit for not getting in the way. He fulfilled the economic Hippocratic oath: first do no harm. Not screwing up a boom going on around you, however, is not the same as job creation.

The fact is that Presidents have very little effect on the state of the economy. Sure, they can affect trade policy, regulation, the environment and, of course, foreign policy. But the economy? With globalization, trillions of dollars flow daily in and out of financial markets. One dollar in 10 is now involved in foreign trade. All advanced economies are subject to huge outside forces beyond a President’s control. Moreover, U.S. Presidents have even less economic control than most other democratic leaders. The President does not control the money supply; the Federal Reserve does. Presidents cannot dictate their own budgets (as Prime Ministers can in parliamentary systems like Britain’s); here, Congress has the ultimate say. Even worse, more than half the federal budget goes to entitlements and “transfer payments” like Social Security, where government is merely a conveyor belt transferring money from younger workers to older folks. What is left, “discretionary” spending, is a mere 8% of the $11 trillion economy Presidents are reputed to control.

Yep. Not that any of this will matter on election day. Silly or not, presidents get credit for good economies and blame for bad ones.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

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