Presidential Approval and the Inherited Economy

The forthcoming article “Presidential Approval and the Inherited Economy” by Michael W. Sances is summarized by the author below. 

Who is responsible for the economy when a new leader takes office? While it might seem implausible that first-year presidents have any control over the current economy, I find voters behave as if they do. Analyzing hundreds of polls from the Carter through Obama presidencies, I find voters associate their rating of the economy with their rating of the president’s job performance, even in the president’s first year. Generally speaking, economic ratings and presidential approval begin to be associated about six months into a president’s term – long before the typical president has a chance to enact a budget or other meaningful economic policy. 
Whether they escape responsibility in year one, questions of timing follow leaders throughout their terms and into the next election cycle. In the 2012 election, Republican Mitt Romney argued Barack Obama should, after four years, be held accountable for the still-recovering economy. The idea that longer-serving presidents are more responsible for the economy is intuitive – but again fails to track with how voters behave. In fact, after a slight increase in a president’s second year, I find the economy-approval relationship does not change at all for the remainder of a president’s term. Thus, despite having eight years to enact economic policy, a president at the end of her second term is just as accountable for the economy as a president in her second year. 
Of course, it is possible that subjective ratings of the economy are reflections, not causes, of how voters feel about the president. This is a longstanding concern in the research on presidential approval, and I take several steps to address it in my paper. The main way I do so is with a survey experiment where I leverage the varying tenure of state governors in early 2019. At this time, many states had governors who had just taken office, while others had governors who had been in office several years, so I surveyed voters in all 50 states about their rating of the state economy and of their governor’s performance. 
On this survey, I randomly informed some voters that experts believed their state economy was performing well, while telling others experts thought their state economy was performing poorly. This prime, which by design is unrelated to voters’ pre-existing ratings of their governors, successfully influenced perceptions of the state economy, which in turn influenced governor job approval. Crucially, however, the effect of the prime was evident even for governors who took office weeks earlier, and was no stronger for governors who had been in office for years. 
Previous work has raised concerns that elections cause presidents to focus their effort on improving the election-year economy, rather than the economy throughout their term. My results, while seemingly counter to intuitions about presidential influence, lessen these concerns. If they wish to remain popular – and thus have a chance passing policies, adding to their party’s seats in Congress and the states, and ultimately be re-elected – presidents ignore the non-election year economy at their peril. 

About the Author: Michael W. Sances is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at Temple University. His research “Presidential Approval and the Inherited Economy” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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