Eric Posner on How Much the President Actually Matters

Does the President Matter as Much as You Think?

DUBNER: Let’s say a given person feels that Trump is as bad a president as could possibly exist, given the norms of American politics. Even if you believe that — and then you look around at how the country is now and probably will be in five and ten years, can you really make the argument that the president, him- or herself, matters so much? Because if one believes this is the worst president ever, shouldn’t the country have suffered much, much more already? Or perhaps you’re arguing it may, and we can’t tell yet.

POSNER: Well, he can be the worst president ever without being infinitely worse than the second-worst. Being a bad president is not the same thing as having an impact. So you could say someone’s the worst president ever and still think that presidents in general don’t have much of an impact. I mean, we could have a president who is like a declared fascist who still didn’t accomplish very much. It’s just— it’s hard to say in the abstract what it means to have an impact. If you think, for example, that climate change is the absolutely most essential issue of our time, and what Trump has done is moved us back several years at a really important time, then maybe he will be the worst and most consequential president ever. But if you don’t think climate change rises to that level of importance, then he’ll seem like he had less of an impact.

DUBNER: But there are other variables in that formula. For instance, climate change, it seems, is starting to be addressed aggressively and often well by technological solutions and breakthroughs that are the result of millions of people working on thousands of different projects. Obviously, the president could do something about that for good, he could also do something about it for ill. But again, it comes back, to me, to the leverage of this one person or this one office. It’s very comforting to think that one person can make things great or terrible. It goes back to Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history. And I think there is a kind of religious connotation there, when we assign that much power to one person or one office, I think it in some way alleviates some of the pressure or responsibility for ourselves as individuals. But I’m perfectly satisfied with you not buying that one iota.

POSNER: No, I think people are worried about the president being too powerful, and don’t take comfort in the idea that one person — for example, destroyed the entire world by launching a nuclear war. So I’m not sure I agree with you. If the question is how much effect can the national government, whether controlled by the president or someone else, realistically have on people’s lives? Ah! I don’t even know how to begin to answer that question. I mean, it could, if it wanted to, destroy everybody’s life. But if we look throughout history, sometimes it’s had enormous effect, and sometimes it’s had no effect. And I guess I find it hard to assign a number in the abstract.

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