Thankfully, Presidents Don’t Run The Economy

Here’s a little something to keep in mind while listening to all the presidential candidates make promises about the economy.


In a period of 36 years, from 1865 to 1901, three American presidents were assassinated. The country was so divided that, at one point, five consecutive presidents received less than a majority of the popular vote and none were re-elected. Looked at from a different perspective, over the past 24 years, America has had only three presidents. In the same time frame following the re-election of Abraham Lincoln, there were eight presidents — an average of one every three years. Talk about instability!

If you looked only to the unstable and corrupt federal government of that era, you might have concluded that the United States was on the brink of failure. But instead, something amazing happened. America became the world’s dominant economic power.

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How did the economy thrive amidst such political turmoil?

A hint can be found in “Creativity, Inc.,” a book by Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar. Catmull’s efforts to build a sustainable creative culture have enriched our world with classic films such as “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters, Inc.”

His answer to unleashing creativity is to recognize that it’s a bottom-up process and that top-down leadership won’t work. “We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute.” That’s the easy part. Catmull also recognizes that “without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways.” The role of leadership is “to identify those impediments and fix them.”

To boost the nation’s economy, a president should start from the presumption that the American people are talented and want to contribute. And that — while well-intentioned — top-down management from politicians and bureaucrats is stifling that entrepreneurial creativity. The role of the president, therefore, should not be to fix the economy. Rather, the president and Congress should remove the impediments imposed by government so that the nation can benefit from the amazing capabilities of the American people.

In building an enormously creative business, the key for Catmull was “the realization that identifying these destructive forces isn’t merely a philosophical exercise. It is a crucial, central mission.” He added that “managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them.”

In the second half the 19th Century, the federal government was neither stable nor strong enough to stop the creativity of the American people from building the most powerful economy in the history of the world. Today, unfortunately, far too many of our political leaders believe that they are the ones who make the economy work.

Rather than promising to fix the economy, the next president would be well advised to follow Catmull’s example. We need a president who trusts the people to work together and find solutions to the challenges facing our nation; a president whose central mission is to clear away the bureaucratic controls that are suppressing the creativity, compassion and common sense of the American people.

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