Evaluating and Debating Presidencies

  • by Gitabushi

I was a little excited when I saw this article by NeoNeoCon. Finally! Someone would talk about the shenanigans that go on when arguing about Presidents, debating who is to blame and who gets credit for economic developments, etc.  When I read the article, I was disappointed.  She hit some good points, but her approach was vastly different from what I was thinking.  So I guess I have to do it myself.

seal sea dog animal
This is the typical image I got when I looked up “Presidential Seal” in the free photo library, so we’ll just have to struggle through together. Photo by karsten madsen on Pexels.com

First of all, I hate the phrase “on his watch.”  It’s lazy analysis.  “Bush is to blame because it happened on his watch.” “Russian occurred on Obama’s watch.” No.  I mean, yes, that’s a factual statement, but it implies a causation that is not necessarily there. Equally as bad is arguing that a President “inherited” some aspect, good or bad.  Yes, there are some lagging indicators, and a President’s actions do carry on beyond their term.  But most people use it to deny giving credit to someone they dislike, or avoid giving blame to someone they admire.

Furthermore, I dislike the trend of blaming or crediting a President for everything that happens.  Sure, it’s easy to just blame/credit the President, and I think that’s why people like doing it: it’s easy.  The reality is we are governed by a government split into three branches.  The President only heads one branch, and the bureaucracy is so large and unwieldy, the reality is a President’s control is tenuous at best, and we should treat it as a fourth branch of government. Even with the formal branches, a President has extremely limited input to the Judicial Branch, and is given an often passive role when it comes to interacting with Congress.

On the other hand, a President has a few advantages:

  • the single government office that the entire nation elects.  The President has a mandate that even a Senator from California doesn’t have.  This is balanced somewhat by the House of Representatives, which provides more fidelity on the Will of the People via smaller districts and elections every two years.  The balance of these two expressions of the Will of the People mean that a POTUS should have a huge mandate in their first two years, but following Congressional elections add nuance and chip away at the edges of a President’s mandate.
  • the Bully Pulpit.  Being a singular head of a Branch means that a President doesn’t have to compromise with anyone to promote his views or his policies, can criticize the other branches, or even social developments, from a single person’s perspective.  As the most visible, singular, and sole nationally-elected official, citizens care more about what a President says, promotes, discourages, etc., than any other single official…and the news media follows suit. There is an incredible potential to push an agenda without creating one word of policy vested in the Office of the President

However, that doesn’t mean a President is all-powerful.  We credit a President too much for many things that happen in the United States. A President doesn’t control the economy, and certainly cannot prevent normal economic cycles. The President doesn’t set spending levels, or taxation levels.  The President can *propose* his preferred policy, and can use his Bully Pulpit to put pressure on Congress to pass it, but he doesn’t control legislation.

So let’s take a look at how people poorly and/or deceptively evaluate Presidents.

George H. W. Bush was POTUS from 1988 to 1992. In the early 90s, the US economy contracted. This was blamed on Bush, which, in my opinion, was unfair.  Sure, it happened on his watch. Moreover, it was likely triggered by Bush agreeing to sign a bill into law that raised taxes.  So, yes, he did it. However, the recession itself was inevitable, sooner or later. If the tax hike hadn’t triggered it, something else would have. Moreover, raising taxes is a *Democrat* policy, and it was passed by a Congress controlled by Democrats.  Even worse, the economy had recovered before the end of Bush’s term, but because there is a great deal of fuzziness and arbitrariness about when a recession begins or ends, the news media was able to falsely claim we were still in a recession, and that it was fully Bush’s fault, right up until that dishonesty helped Bill Clinton defeat Bush.

Continuing on, Clinton is not only erroneously credited with fixing the Bush Recession, he is also somewhat inaccurately credited with reducing the number of people on welfare and with an extremely hot economy (sometimes called the dotcom economy or the dotcom bubble).  Yes, both those things happened on his watch. Yes, he even signed the welfare changes into law, and it was the result of his deliberate triangulation on the issue, to deal with the mandate the Congressional Republicans had earned by winning a majority.

But the obvious success and benefit to the US in these policies are used to credit Bill Clinton himself, and in his status as a Democrat President.  The argument is, Bill Clinton presided over the economic recovery, got people off of welfare, and led the nation into the internet age.  Since his term, every good economy and period of low unemployment is compared to Bill Clinton’s dotcom economy, and rightfully so: they were excellent numbers. The argument continues that Bill Clinton was/is a Democrat, so if you want a great economy, low unemployment, and people off of welfare, you must vote for Democrats.

Well, no.

There is nothing magical about Democrats or Republicans.  What matters is the *policy*, regardless of who enacted it.

Welfare Reform is, at heart, a Conservative policy, not a Progressive one.  Progressives throw money at problems, Conservatives set up consequences and demand individual effort to obtain benefits.  Forcing people to actually and earnestly seek work to continue to receive welfare ended up with more people in the workforce because the policy prevented the “discouraged job seeker” phenomenon, and prevented recipients from living comfortably on the dole.  The dotcom bubble was also a Conservative event: it took over our economy because there were no taxes for items purchased on the internet: a tax moratorium is now proven to stimulate economic growth and increase employment. But Conservatives want lower or eliminated taxes; Progressive policy is to raise taxes whenever/wherever you can get away with it.  If Democrats had free reign, they would have imposed taxes on the internet from the beginning.

The lesson from this is, if you want to grow Space Commerce, do you announce that you will fund exploration and development with a fairly high corporate tax rate on all space activities?  Or do you announce a moratorium regarding any/all taxes on revenue derived from space commerce?  Obviously, the latter.  And just as obviously, that is a conservative policy, and runs counter to Progressive policies.

So let’s look at President George W Bush. What does he get blamed for, and get credit for, in my view?

Well, 9/11 occurred before he had his security team fully in place.  Moreover, the US Govt was hampered in its ability to detect the terrorist plot due to “walls” preventing information flow between different federal government agencies, and those “walls” were put into place by President Clinton, on the advice of his prominent advisor Jamie Gorelick.  Maybe you can’t blame Clinton, but you clearly can’t blame W, either.  Reports that “he was warned” are silly: the “warnings” were vague, and no action could have been taken without severe violations of the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution. Sometimes bad things happen because of chance. Other times, bad things happen because an enemy has a successful plan that exploits weaknesses.  That’s what happened with 9/11.

Bush should be credited, however, for the improvement of the economy following 9/11. From 2003 to 2006, the US economy was pretty much the equivalent of Clinton’s dotcom economy.  And it came about due to Bush pushing for tax cuts back in 2002. But if you want to credit Congress instead, I won’t argue with you. The important thing is that the Conservative policy of tax cuts stimulated the economy.  As such, we shouldn’t elect a President because a Democrat or Republican President is better for the economy, we should vote for and elect a President who promises to cut taxes wherever possible, and finds ways to cut other stealth taxes (like federal govt regulation, and fees, etc.), because reducing the costs of doing business improves the economy.

But at the same time, Congress was spending like a drunken sailor.  Porkbusters emerged to try to fight back against GOP Congress-led pork barrel earmarks.  You can blame the GOP Congress for doing this, and you can blame W for signing the spending bills that included the pork barrel spending, but you can’t use that as an argument to vote for Democrats, because increased spending is, at worst, a *Progressive* policy…and at best, a bipartisan one.  Democrats who campaign on Republicans running up the deficit never cut spending…they find new things to spend on, arguing that fed govt spending improves the economy, and then they raise taxes to close the deficit, which kills the economy and makes things worse.  Republicans who campaign on Democrats running up the deficit will cut some spending, and make abortive attempts to cut other spending, but apparently will not cut spending, over the protests of the Freedom Caucus and Tea Partiers in the GOP, and with the RINOs gleefully joining with Democrat Congressional minorities who chortle about getting what they want with the GOP taking the blame.

This really needs to get fixed, but that’s an argument for another day. The point is that the spending doesn’t stay high because of the President, and sometimes it stays high due to GOP defections joining with Democrats to make a virtual Democrat majority.  And there are plenty of times the GOP just plain embraces spending.  But it is worth noting: the GOP has a vocal minority against the excessive spending, and that vocal minority has been growing over the last decade.  There is no minority among Democrats, vocal or otherwise, that is willing to consider spending cuts at all. In an even more stark disparity, GOP voters get fed up with spending to the point that someone like Dave Brat can surprisingly defeat a leading GOP Representative based purely on spending issues.  Not only does that never happen to Democrats, the opposite does: a prominent Democrat Representative gets defeated in the  primary by someone who advocates the nearly-unlimited spending of Socialism: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

So when it comes to the deficit, ignoring parties and personalities, the lesson is clear: tax cuts grow the economy, excessive spending causes deficits, and while you might struggle to force the GOP to cut spending, Democrats will always push to raise both spending and taxes.

Continuing on, W gets blamed for the 2006-2017 recession. But I think if you look closer, you see a few things: First, Democrats took over Congress in 2006. They won by pushing an end to the failed war in Iraq.  However, by the time they took office, W’s “Surge” had actually won that war, and Iraq was relatively peaceful. So Democrats began talking down the economy and increased spending and regulation. That primed things for a downturn.  The trigger for the crash, however, was clearly caused by encouraging banks to lend money to riskier borrowers. W was to blame for not vetoing the Democrats bills that weakened the economy.  But he actually pushed back against the devastating lending encouragement; in fact, Democrats called anyone racist who opposed that social justice policy.  Thus, the crash was caused by Progressive policy. If you think I’m being too vague, it’s to keep this shorter. I could write 4-5 pages just on how Democrats caused the crash.

W is also to blame for signing TARP.  But please be clear: it wasn’t Bush’s policy, and it *certainly* wasn’t a Fiscal Conservative’s policy.  It was, from start to finish, a Progressive policy.  It made things worse.

I agree that Obama can’t be blamed for the job losses that occurred “on his watch.”  However, I think he also cannot blame W for the economy he inherited, because he voted for the policies that crashed the economy as a Senator in 2006.

Moreover, Democrats blame W for the deficit because the deficit started to climb under W. Again, you have to look at who controlled Congress and the nature of the contributing policies.  The deficit reduced every year under W after 9/11.  The economic hit of 9/11 make those deficits understandable.  The deficit reduction continued even after Bush’s tax cuts (indeed, I think it was *because of*) and despite the spending in Iraq. The deficits didn’t start to grow again until Democrats took control of Congress and started passing policy that damages the economy.  So W can be blamed for not vetoing, but that should make it clear: the blame lies with *Progressive* policy, not the party of who was POTUS at the time.

Even worse, Democrats wanted lots of new spending, because their ideology, against all available evidence, still erroneously believes govt spending helps the economy.  So Congress refused to give Bush the 2009 budget to sign. This was because it was so stuffed with pork, even W might have vetoed it. Plus, they believed it was usher in an era of prosperity, and didn’t want W to get credit.  So they delayed delivering the bill until Obama was POTUS.  Once that huge spending increase was set as the baseline, Democrats dropped the regular budgeting order and just forced Continuing Resolutions so they would never again have to face voters with votes for their ruinous levels of spending. And after deliberately arranging for Obama to be the one to get credit, when it didn’t work out as they hoped, they churlishly give W the blame for the increased spending…I guess depending on ignorance of when the 2009 spending bill was actually passed, and who signed it.

Okay, that’s a bunch of paragraphs of narrative, but it is all to set up this explanation: I also think you have to credit/blame a POTUS for what they promise and predict.

For instance, Obama campaigned on the notion that he knew what was wrong with the economy, and would fix it immediately.

Okay, we can allow for campaign exaggeration.  But after being elected President, he predicted recovery the first summer.  When it didn’t happen, he blamed Bush for the economy he inherited.

No. If you claim to know what the problem is, predict you can fix it, and get the policy you want, you now get the blame.  He spent his entire two terms blaming Bush for anything that didn’t work out like he wanted.

This is wrong.

Likewise, Obama and his sycophants predicted all sorts of disaster under Trump. Some said the stock market would *never* recover.  Obama himself mocked Trump by asking Trump if he had a magic want to magically make the jobs come back.  When Obama’s anemic economy never broke 3% growth, Obama and his sycophants said this was the new normal, and the US would never see growth above 3% again.

As such, no one should be allowed to claim Obama gets the credit for the economy under Trump.  It is stupid.

If your predictions for the economy are completely wrong, then you lose all credibility to blame or credit at all.

Again: Trump enacted *Conservative* policy: he reduced all sorts of federal govt regulation, reducing the cost to doing business. He also clearly telegraphed that he wouldn’t add unexpected, onerous new regulation, so businesses could plan for growth without worrying about painting themselves into a corner.  This was one thing Obama clearly did wrong: Obamacare was a whole bundle of uncertainty.  Businesses had no idea how much costs would increase from year to year. And to keep the health system from catastrophic failure cause by Obamacare, Obama unilaterally (and probably in violation of the US Constitution) delayed implementation of many of its aspects.  But all that really did was increase the uncertainty of the business climate.  Then when Obama started pushing diversity/identity issues, it frightened companies about the possibility of arbitrary increased costs at any moment.

As a result, Obama didn’t just preside over the worst recovery in the history of the US, he arguably caused it.

The argument that W ruined the economy so badly that it caused the slow recovery is ridiculous.  In the history of the US and economics in general, the worse the economic downturn, the quicker the recovery.  Economic cycles are *always* long/slow/mild or quick/short/deep.  Obama’s economy was not. The decline was rapid and deep, and then stunningly anemic in recovery.  And it was due to uncertainty in the business climate from policy advocated and/or enacted by Obama.

The penultimate point I want to make is that Trump promised he would create an environment that would boost employment for blacks in specific and minorities in general. Okay, okay he claimed he would create jobs for blacks.  But as you hopefully realize by now, Presidents don’t create jobs. They merely help create an environment conducive or adverse to economic growth.  But with the reduction of taxes, reduction of fed govt regulation, and attempt to reduce spending, Trump has encouraged a business climate that has significantly increased manufacturing jobs, energy sector jobs, and pushed unemployment for blacks and Hispanics to record lows.  Since this is what he predicted he’d do, he gets full credit for it.

The final point is a word about gas prices.  Again, a POTUS doesn’t have direct control over gas prices. It’s a complex pricing system, with inputs coming from OPEC, US domestic production reacting to barrel prices, barrel prices reacting to expectations of future surplus or future shortage, summer driving demands on gas, refinery availability (impacted by flooding and hurricanes), and fuel mixes that change based on season and geography.

But, just like how a POTUS can impact the business climate to encourage or discourage expansion and hiring, a POTUS can impact whether the speculators think there will be surplus or shortage in the future.  One of the ways is by signalling a willingness to tap the strategic oil reserve. Another way is by pushing to lower the federal gas tax. Another is by signalling willingness to approve additional drilling locations.

In every case, Obama signalled that he didn’t care about low prices, and wanted so badly to reduce CO2 emissions and boost “green” energy, that he was unwilling to do anything that made fossil fuels more available.  This caused higher prices.  In contrast, W signalled willingness to allow drilling and tap the strategic oil reserve.  Prices remained high due to uncertainty worldwide about how terrorism and war in the middle east might impact oil availability.

Add to this, China’s economic growth has stimulated a sharp increase in their demand for petroleum, which increases global demand, which increases prices.

I’m not going to go so far as say we should blame Obama for high gas prices on his watch but give Bush a pass.  There is more that Bush could have done. There were many things that were out of Obama’s control.

But I do think the differing attitude, policy, and revealed intent should indicate whether each should get credit, blame, or tolerance.

And this is how I evaluate Presidents, and how I think everyone should evaluate Presidents. Some tribalism will always be a part of the evaluation, based on your preferred policies.  But rather than making arguments based on the party you like, you should analyze the policies that brought about the results you like, and then advocate for the candidate/POTUS you prefer based on your preferred outcomes.  This should result in a lower level of tribalism.

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