What presidents can do is influence the extent to which government either facilitates or obstructs the creative forces that drive our economy. Sometimes obstruction (usually in the form of regulation) is appropriate, where the costs of creativity exceed the benefits. And sometimes direct facilitation in the form of spending on public goods (infrastructure and basic research) is appropriate.
But when we wait with baited breath for this morning’s August unemployment numbers from the Department of Labor in anticipation of blaming or crediting the president, we either misunderstand or misrepresent the power of the president and of the government he leads. Despite abundant evidence drawn from across the 20th century that economies cannot be effectively managed and that attempts to do so often have disastrous consequences for the least well off, both political parties left voters with the message that their guy will create jobs, fix the economy and provide for those in need. The Democrats believe it. The Republicans, for the most part, do not. But their convention, despite the efforts of Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and Clint Eastwood, showed they have not yet figured out how to compete in a world of interest group and entitlement politics while speaking honestly about the economy and the role and powers of the president.
Perhaps it cannot be done. With fewer than half of our citizens actually paying federal income taxes, maybe we are beyond the point where a candidate for president can speak the truth about the relationship between government and the economy. In that case, not only are the conventions irrelevant, but we are headed for a bleak future no matter who is elected.
Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.