By Andrew Beatty (AFP) – Oct 28, 2011
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama occupies the most powerful political office in the world, but when it comes to managing the economy he -- and his predecessors -- are more impotent than many Americans believe.
It is a truism of American politics that the president carries the can.
Whether it is a war going sour or a roaring legislative victory years in the making, as the sign on Harry Truman's desk put it: "The buck stops here."
Unfortunately for Barack Obama, the buck is stopping at 9.1 percent unemployment, record national debt and a measly growth rate of 2.5 percent.
It is a legacy that no incumbent in modern times has been able to overcome to retain the presidency.
But how much can Obama or any US president actually manage the economy? Not much, according to some presidential historians.
"I think people do overestimate how much influence the president has over 'bottom line' indicators like GDP growth rates and unemployment rates," said Richard Carroll, author of "The President as Economist."
"It also seems that people do a poor job of apportioning responsibility to other institutions like the Fed and to the previous administration."
Although the constitution gives the president sweeping powers in many policy areas, in practice the White House has few economic tools that do not depend on another branch of government.
Congress controls the purse strings of fiscal policy, while monetary policy is largely the domain of the Federal Reserve.
The limits of executive power are currently being seen in Washington.
Faced with a hostile Congress, Obama has been forced to abandon plans for a $447 billion stimulus package.
Instead, he has announced a host of much smaller measures that can be done by executive order, including the creation of a website for business.
"I think that presidential leadership here is not where it is on article two of the constitution, where he is commander in chief," said David Abshire, a former advisor to Ronald Reagan.
But according to Abshire, who now heads the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, presidents do have one potent economic tool -- what Theodore Roosevelt called "the bully pulpit."
"The economy is partly based in confidence, consumer confidence and confidence in the president," said Abshire.
He pointed to Franklin Roosevelt and his fight against the Great Depression as one example of that pulpit being used effectively.
"One thing that Roosevelt did, he had an extraordinary ability to communicate with the people and keep the people on his side with his fireside chats, in a way that recent presidents have not been able to do."
But some analysts doubt that the president can make much of a difference even when the pulpit is used and Congress is pliant.
"The mainstream view is that it is just a question of turning the right knobs and pushing the right levers," said Russell Roberts, an economist at George Mason University. "The evidence is extremely mixed at best."
"The president has tremendous potential to do damage to the economy. I think it is an open question as to what the president can do to make things better."
"There are things we know not to do... But one thing we don't know how to do is steer the economy."
Even the most commonly cited examples of economic statecraft have been the subject of fierce debate.
President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" was long credited with easing the Great Depression, but scholars still debate whether it was in fact ended by World War II.
Lyndon Johnson's multi-billion dollar "War on Poverty" was credited with improving the lives of millions, but academics have questioned whether improvements in the broader economy were more influential.
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