Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the first unemployment report under the Trump administration. The President and his advisors wasted little time (in violation of existing regulation) touting the numbers as evidence of the administration’s success. Many scoffed at the suggestion, since the President has not had the chance to produce policy that could plausibly influence the unemployment rate. The debate about this jobs report, however, raises a bigger question: how do we know the President is doing a good job?
To spoil this post from the start: I don’t know the answer to this question. That is not particularly satisfying – but that’s the point. Judging the success and effectiveness of politicians is difficult, in part, because politicians themselves have incentives to select indicators that reflect positively. Worse still, there is no collective consensus (that I am aware of) among people who study the presidency about how to answer this question.
That does not mean people don’t have an answer to this question. In fact, my guess is that they have many answers and that those answers change a lot – sometimes to rationalize their support for the President. But the fact that judging success is difficult does not mean that any way of judging will do. It may be tough to give a straightforward answer about how to rate the President, but it is easy to demonstrate that any simple indicator will give us a bad answer. My point here is to identify why we ought to be suspicious of some of these common measuring sticks, and to point to a few alternatives.
- Unemployment. Political campaigns and press releases are generally flush with jobs numbers. President Trump is not alone in his boasting about steady job growth, as this rhetoric was common during the Obama administration – which saw five straight years of positive jobs reports. But there are a few glaring problems with this indicator. The first is that the president has little direct control over the labor market. In the case of Trump, the meager control he had (over portions of the federal bureaucracy) he used to freeze hiring. When presidents do enact policies that influence the labor market directly, they are usually signing something produced by Congress. Do they deserve credit? Maybe. But even then, isolating the impact of a law is notoriously difficult.
- Stock Market Indices. Markets have responded well to President Trump after a brief downturn following his unexpected election victory. But that does not mean stock values are a good indicator of job performance. As anyone with investments during the 2007-2009 financial crisis knows, markets are sometimes prone to illusion. I am no expert on this, so I recommend Robert Shiller‘s article on the Trump bubble. (He wrote the book on financial bubbles and won a Nobel prize.) Stocks are simply claims on profits of corporations, their price is a function of expectations. So in a way, if we were to give presidents credit for values in the stock market, we would be giving them credit for things they haven’t done. In President Trump’s case, anticipated returns are probably high because the market expects deregulation.
- Consumer Sentiment. See above. Overall, the financial crisis of 2007-2009 and subsequent recession are a great example of why all these economic indicators aren’t great evaluators. For one thing, it is difficult to argue that President Bush was directly responsible for the trillions in risk exposure taken on by big banks. Likewise, it is difficult to argue that President Obama is the author and finisher of the recovery. After all, the actions that thwarted complete economic collapse were taken by the world’s central banking institutions – which are among the least democratic and independent by design (this is a good thing!).
- “Wins” in Congress. What about legislative success? Unfortunately, we don’t have a great way to track this. Suppose we simply look at how many of the bills presidents take a position on are approved by Congress. Similarly, we could look at what proportion of “requests” (made during the State of the Union address or otherwise) are acted on. Either number, however, is fraught with problems. First, presidents strategically take positions and send up requests to Capitol Hill. They avoid things they think they’ll lose on. Second, the bills that pass (which would be counted as a “win”) might not actually be “wins.” Congress may have amended them so that they look nothing like what the President originally wanted. The President may still sign it – either because it is better than nothing, or because they want to avoid reversing course and appearing weak.
- Executive Orders (et al). Recently, President Trump’s spokespersons bragged about the number of directives (Executive Orders, Memoranda, Proclamations, etc.) the President has signed since taking office. They want the President’s supporters to take these orders as a sign the President intends to keep his promises, whether Congress is cooperative or not. The most glaring problem is that there is no guarantee these documents will change policy. In some cases, agencies will simply ignore or delay carrying out the orders. In 2013, President Obama ordered the CDC and NIH to conduct $10 million worth of research on gun violence. The NIH funded $1.4 million, and the CDC funded $0. In other cases, the order will be so vague, and give Secretaries so much latitude, that no immediate action is taken. President Trump signed executive orders on his proposed border wall and Obamacare to much fanfare. So far, there is no evidence either order has had an impact – both prescribe a goal (“border wall” or “healthcare”) and leave it to someone else to come up with the details. Moreover, if no one does come up with the details, the consequences will have to be enforced by Trump himself. Executive orders and other directives, unlike a law passed by Congress, aren’t enforceable by private citizens. I can’t sue because the Department of Homeland Security didn’t build a wall. You can’t sue because the Department of Health and Human Services didn’t wave your healthcare tax penalty.
- Public opinion / job approval ratings. This one is a bit circular. It says that we know that the President is doing a good job when a bunch of people think he is doing a good job. This measure might be fine if you are comfortable saying that it doesn’t matter if we have an objective measure of performance. What matters is that the American people think their president is performing well. This is out of the question for me because I am not a postmodernist. But the most glaring problem with this measure is that public opinion is vulnerable to cues from elites and bounces around in response to world events largely disassociated from actions taken by presidents.
If you buy that the metrics above are bad, then it is important to have some alternative. Otherwise, we’re forced to rely on them anyway. So below, I have listed a few possible ones. They are less countable, and they all have one thing in common: they are, unquestionably, under the President’s direct control. They are also independent of policy. Meaning, as someone with center-right political leanings, you could evaluate Barack Obama with them and come out thinking he was doing a fairly good job. The same holds if you are left-of-center evaluating the current President.
- Appointments. Who did the President appoint? There is an excellent House of Cards quote: “The President is the people who work for him.” There is a lot of truth to that. Presidents cannot supervise most executive branch operations. Failures and successes are borne of the people they delegate to. Needless to say, the quality of the people presidents surround themselves with is critical. Presidents make thousands of appointments and have to rely on party officials and other appointees to recommend people for the majority of positions. But the highest-level appointees (Cabinet secretaries and administrators) receive the President’s full attention. Presidents can be judged by the quality of these individuals.
- Promises. Did the President make good on campaign promises? Presidents make a lot of promises during political campaigns. There are a few excellent outfits tracking action on these promises. Sometimes, I think they assign credit prematurely. But in general, these tools are a great way to track changing positions and broken (or kept) promises.
- Transparency. Does the President let the public know whether promises are being kept? Does the President try to obfuscate the truth for political gain? Though most internal conversations in the White House should remain out of the public view, there is a lot of information that ought to be shared with the general public. This is what White House press briefings are for. In general, if administrations are cagey and reluctant to share information with the public, that is a sign of weakness. Information that makes the administration look bad is a liability. So, how do you know a President is doing well? They’re more than willing to let the light shine in.
- Military Actions. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but Presidents ought to be held directly responsible anytime they take military action. The buck has to stop with them, or we risk the President’s authorizing action carelessly because they believe they will not be held responsible. The bottom line here is that no single individual has more information or expertise to make these decisions. Moreover, the President is constitutionally responsible as commander-in-chief. Every action is traceable.
With that, I leave it to you (if you made it this far) to decide how our current President is doing on the four points above. And by all means, if you think of something better, let me know.