The bias against presidential restraint

I have a new working paper available, this time co-authored with Frank Garmon and Phillip Magness. In this paper, we argue that rankings of presidential greatness in the United States (i.e. the evaluation of presidential performance) have systemic biases resulting from Presidents wanting to rank higher in such rankings. Because Presidents care about their historical reputations (i.e. how well they rank relative to other Presidents), they want to leave a mark that historians can observe. This means that there is a bias in favor of being proactive and that there is a penalty to being restrained. Presidential restraint means that there are fewer crumbs in the forest for historians to follow. However, there is no reason to believe that restraint is an inefficient (in terms of socio-economic outcomes) course of action. There are numerous instances where restraint could be warranted. Thus, restraint may be desirable socially but undesirable for an individual president as it means that he will not be seen as easily by historians. The abstract is below and the paper is available here on SSRN:

Comparative rankings of presidential performance can be clouded with partisan biases. Here, we argue that there is another and often overlooked bias: active presidents use power and in the process they highlight their performance. It is easier to observe the use of power than the restraint of power. As such, there is a form of selection bias in expert rankings of presidents whereby we are best able to evaluate those who are more proactive rather than those who, willfully or not, exercise political restraint. In this paper, we consider how presidential rankings of greatness are affected by measures of presidential restraint (use of veto powers, divided government, changes in the size of government). We find evidence that restraint has a negative effect on presidential rankings suggesting the presence of a bias historical evaluation whereby presidents that adopt proactive and interventionist policy stances leave more visible marks that impress more favorably upon expert rankings of presidents.


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