PSQ prides itself on publishing scholarship created by the best and brightest in their respective fields. To highlight some of these exciting contributors and provide an in-depth look at the broader work our authors do, we bring you our Featured Author interview series.
Our June 2016 featured author is John V. Kane, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University. His research primarily focuses on political behavior, partisanship and ideology, and quantitative research methods.
To contact John Kane or find out more about his work, visit his website (johnvkane.com) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: What initially sparked your interest in presidential responsibility for the economy?
A: This project joined two of my general areas of interest. First, I’ve always had a passion for understanding basic macroeconomics, particularly because the vicissitudes of the economy carry great consequences for people’s lives. Second, especially during the first two years of the Obama Administration, I came to appreciate the enormous power that Congress, vis-à-vis the presidency, can wield over domestic policymaking. My general sense, therefore, has long been that national economic outcomes (e.g., unemployment, GDP growth, etc.) result from a multitude of highly complex processes, and that presidents are highly constrained in terms of what they alone can do about these outcomes.
Yet, upon familiarizing myself with scholarly research on economic voting, and becoming more attentive to claims made in the news media, it quickly became apparent that unequivocal blaming or praising of the presidency for the economy tends to be regarded as self-evidently legitimate. This was surprising to me, particularly because the very simple question of “To what extent does the presidency alone affect the national economy?” is actually remarkably challenging to investigate empirically.
On the question of whether the state of the economy matters for citizens’ presidential vote choice and presidential approval, of course, the empirical evidence is overwhelmingly in the affirmative. But again, underlying most of these scholarly findings is a tacit acceptance of the notion that punishing or rewarding presidents for economic outcomes is effectively “fair game.” Thus, there seemed to be a kind of consensus wherein many commentators and scholars reasoned that, since the presidency is often publicly credited or blamed for the economy, and since the data clearly show that the economy matters for presidential fortunes, we can all proceed as though the president is, in fact, responsible for the economy.
Q: What are the key questions in the study of the president and economic control?
A: This disjuncture between what we attribute to the president and what the president can actually control is precisely what inspired me to ask the following question: Why do citizens believe the presidency wields so much power over the economy?
This general perception of presidential responsibility for the economy, which I treat as comprising both (1) perceptions of control over the economy, and (2) perceptions of accountability for the economy, is the key phenomenon my study seeks to explain. Suspecting that campaign rhetoric may play a role, I designed a survey experiment to investigate how presidential candidates’ strategic claims might influence these perceptions.
An important finding from the study is that information about real-world constraints on presidential power over the national economy substantially reduced the degree to which respondents perceived the presidency as being responsible for the economy. In other words, hearing this contrarian—but accurate—information about presidential power over the economy brought citizens’ perceptions closer in line with what is (likely) more warranted by reality.
Q: What kind of response do you hope your work elicits from your readers? Ideally, what kind of critical thought do you hope your article inspires?
A: The study offers many additional avenues for future research, and so one hope is that readers will judge my central research question as important enough to merit further investigation.
But, especially given the upcoming presidential elections, my main hope is that readers might attribute economic credit or blame to the presidency in a more circumspect manner. In the absence of any empirical evidence suggesting that a president’s policy had a particular effect on the economy, for example, we run the risk of easily mistaking coincidence for causation.
Relatedly, for political experts who publicly advise that presidential candidates engage in economic credit-claiming or blaming, or claiming that there will be glorious economic times ahead if elected president, my hope is that these experts might question whether there exists a meaningful difference between (1) claims that will be effective, versus (2) claims that will be accurate. Failing to make this distinction, in my view, does little to temper the popular perception that presidents single-handedly “manage” the national economy, which has important consequences for which candidates win elections and ultimately assume the presidency.