Presidents Have Little Effect On Economy

Mon. July 3, 2000 12:00 AM by Business Wire

Champaign, IL - Presidents' and presidential candidates' claims to the contrary, United States presidents have very little impact on the economic progress of the country they lead.

Indeed, although U.S. presidents often are credited for economic progress and blamed for economic failures, the fact is that in this realm, "to a large extent, they are bystanders."
So says veteran economic observer David F. Linowes, the former chairman of four presidential commissions and the Boeschenstein Professor Emeritus of Political Economy and Public Policy at the University of Illinois. His views appear in his new book, "Living Through Fifty Years of Economic Progress With Ten Presidents: The Most Productive Generation in History, 1946-1996" (JAI Press).

After tracing the business breakthroughs of the last 50 years, Linowes concludes that the real heroes of U.S. economic progress are business organizations and their executives. Over the past five decades, he argues, the private sector has been "the driving economic force." The "triumph of capitalism has made the business corporation one of the most important institutions in our society."

To be sure, Linowes does tip his hat to some presidents and their efforts -- the Truman administration's Marshall Plan, the Federal Highway Act passed on Eisenhower's watch, and JFK's invigorated space program. In general, however, government offers incentives to conduct certain economic activities or it erects barriers. "The effect on economic conditions may or may not be substantial."

In addition to profiling the five Democratic and five Republican presidents who held office during this period of unparalleled productivity, Linowes examined the industries he believes played a major role in growing the economy: Post World War II -- television, conglomerates, computers, tourism; Space Race -- steel, space, housing and advertising; Watergate Era -- oil, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology/genetic engineering, telephones, transportation and automobiles; and USSR Disintegration -- entertainment, higher education and information technology.

Linowes' chapter on Bill Clinton opens with: "The administration had a discontinuous quality to it and often seemed on the brink of disaster." The first lady, Linowes claims, played an unprecedented role in the
presidency, "particularly with regard to managing the economy," and she was "a principal player in the budget meetings. When summaries on the economy and briefing books on economic policy were delivered to the president, a second set was made available to the first lady. She considered herself a peer of her husband's advisers and a full participant in the budget process."

Despite the doubts of many, business did well under Clinton, Linowes wrote. "Many companies fared far better than at any period since 1970. Like much of the electorate, corporate America seemed willing to overlook the personal frailties of the president and focus on economic issues as the nation moved toward the new century."

News, photos provided by Business Wire.