Lessons and Issues

By Quirk, Paul J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Lessons and Issues


Quirk, Paul J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


In these closing remarks, I will refrain from recapitulating in detail and allow the important articles in this special issue to speak mainly for themselves. For the most part, I will offer some reflections about what we have learned and about issues for future research that go beyond the articles or are not fully explicit in them. Since I am hardly an expert in all of the areas treated by the articles, I will discuss the issues quite informally and venture some judgments, admittedly, speculatively. If nothing else, I hope to provoke thought about some new directions in presidency research.

Policy Focus

Most of the articles presented here differ from the preponderance of the literature on presidential economic policy making in one or both of two ways: first, they deal with how the most recent presidents have dealt with or contributed to causing the post-2008 financial and economic crisis; or second, they concern the president's role in the long-term development of the economy--in particular, with respect to financial regulation, taxation, and the distribution of income and wealth. Only one article (Comiskey and Marsh) maintains the more standard emphasis on the use of fiscal and monetary policy for short-term stabilization or, more specifically, on the economic results. The first lesson of this special issue is surely that this broader focus is warranted and urgent. If anything, the issues of long-term development are probably the more important ones for economic well-being. As Knott points out, the deregulation of financial services--a long series of long-term changes--played a central role in the devastation of the financial crisis. Hacker and Pierson show that presidents' choices between increasing employment and controlling inflation are far less important than decisions on tax structure, financial regulation, labor relations, and other long-term issues in accounting for the extraordinary levels of economic equality in the contemporary United States. There has been an understandable methodological bias toward studying decisions that are made repeatedly; on substantive grounds, however, decisions that have effect indefinitely will often be more important.

Comparing Presidents

Short-term macroeconomic management is still enormously important. I believe that the literature should now move beyond the focus of party effects. This approach has produced and will continue to produce extremely interesting findings. Nevertheless, the focus on party offers an overly simple conception of the differences between presidents in this context. In particular, Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush differed considerably from Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in their attitudes toward taxation and deficit spending--differences that may be comparable in importance to those between Democratic presidents and either group of Republicans. There may be other important differences within parties as well. On analytic grounds, it is important for scholars to address a wider range of differences between presidents. What happens to the party comparisons if, for example, the hard-line tax cutters are separated from the other Republicans?

On the other hand, in my view, research on macroeconomic policy also should not take measures of economic performance--for example, income growth, employment, or the distribution of income--as the principal dependent variables for analysis. Those measures are certainly the outcomes for the public that ultimately motivate analysis. But neither presidents nor even the entire government determine short-term performance with much precision. A large part of performance is determined by conditions and events outside of government control. To mention a few obvious examples, the long run of prosperity during Bill Clinton's administration is often attributed to a "technology boom." The disastrous performance under Jimmy Carter was largely a result of drastic increases in energy prices. …

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