After seeing Larry Bartels present his findings on how the economy has done better, for the poor and middle class, under Democratic presidents than Republican presidents, I was puzzled. Not that it couldn’t be true, but it seemed a little mysterious, given the general sense that presidents don’t have much control over the econony–business cycles just seem to happen sometime.
Attitudes about what presidents can do for the economy
But the general perceptions about Presidents and the economy have changed over time.
I might be wrong here, not having lived through the entire postwar period, but my perception is that, during most of this time, “competence” was not an issue; rather, there was a general belief that the president could do some things, most notably help labor (for the Democrats) or business (for the Republicans).
The exception here was the 1976-1996 period, during which there was a real sense of economic incompetence or powerlessness of some presidents (Ford with his Whip Inflation Now, Carter with stagflation, the residual view of Democrats being incompetent for the economy, George H.W. Bush with the deficit and the regression, perhaps extending to Dole in 1996). Then, since 2000, we’ve returned to the general attitude that both parties have essential competence but have different goals. (Not that everyone agrees on the “competence” issue, but it seems to me that the battle is more being fought on priorities than competence–in contrast to 1992, for example.)
Back to Larry’s paper
So, the conventional wisdom based on the 1976-1996 period is that presidents can’t do much, they’re at the mercy of the business cycle, etc., which makes Bartels’s results seem like some sort of fluke, or a perhaps meaningless juxtaposition of one-off results. But taking the 1948-1972 and 2000-2004 perspectives, Bartels’s graph makes a lot of sense. From this perspective, the Democrats did their thing, and the Republicans did theirs, and you’d expect to see a big difference at the low end of the income scale. (Again, this is inherently short-term reasoning, not long-term, but as Larry pointed out in his talk, the evidence is that voters are susceptible to short-term inferences.)
In summary: we’re used to thinking of presidents as fairly powerless surfers on the global economy, able to tinker with tax rates but not much more–but thinking about the entire postwar period, there’s certainly been at least the perception that presidents can deliver the economic goods to their constituencies. So from that perspective, Larry’s curves should not be much of a surprise–at least in that the slope for Democrats goes down (i.e., poor people do better under Democratic presidents) and the slope for Republicans goes up (i.e., rich people do better under Republican presidents). The relative positions of the lines is another story, which perhaps corrresponds to random alignments of the business cycle.