Quote card by Opinion.

The president of the United States is often coined as the most powerful individual in the world. Given the country’s stature as a global superpower, and the outsized influence America has on the globe, this distinction is well earned. Yet, Americans time and time again find a way to questionably assign their country’s leader more power, blame and control than they deserve. No better is this illustrated than in a 2002 scientific paper that infamously claimed that the prevalence of shark attacks in an area affected the popularity of the incumbent president.

Rarely has this been more visible than throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The president, as the leader of the federal government’s response, no doubt has some levers he alone can pull. In his first full day in office, for example, President Biden signed 10 executive orders meant to improve the nation’s response to the pandemic. His administration implemented vaccine mandates — with testing opt-outs — for all companies of 100 or more employees, along with a vaccine requirement for incoming international travelers. Yet, even some of these actions, many of which require no congressional support, have faced roadblocks that the president alone cannot solve. The Supreme Court in particular has outright blocked the administration’s mandate for large employers, demanding congressional action instead. 

When then-former Vice President Joe Biden was running for president in 2020, he and his Democratic allies often cited the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred under former President Donald Trump’s watch as a reason why voting for his re-election ought to be unfathomable. Biden vowed to shut down the virus, not the economy. Over a year later, the virus continues to rage, and Biden himself has seen close to 400,000 deaths since his inauguration. If Trump was to blame for all the deaths that occurred during his administration, it is only right that the same criteria be applied to Biden. But, in reality, this criterion should apply to neither. Surely they each have had an effect on how the country has fared with the virus. For example, Trump notoriously downplayed the virus and discounted the efficacy of masks. Yet Americans, as they do with a variety of issues, have ignored the vast majority of underlying factors. 

As Biden pointed out this week in a call with governors, much of the COVID-19 response is state-based. Be it mask mandates, vaccine passports or local testing sites, much of it is out of the president’s control. Moreover, the pandemic is driven by individualistic behavior. A president cannot control campus parties, college football game crowds or those who are careless regarding COVID-19. The president is simply a part of the at-large problem, yet partisans on both sides of the aisle love to assign wholesale blame to a single person, and American citizens follow. 

This is also, as has been the case for seemingly ever, applicable to the economy. Economists for years have lamented the fact that the president alone has little sway over the general economy. Economic cycles, congressional action and monetary policy that alone is not set by the president are just some of the aspects that drive the state of the economy with little regard for the leader of the free world. A specific economic problem as of late has been gas prices. Gas prices are some of the easiest economic changes for Americans to notice, and high gas prices can have damaging effects on the president who oversees them, even though they had little to do with the circumstances that may have caused these prices. 

Biden released oil reserves in an attempt that was painted as a way to ease price hikes, but which most experts deemed to be little more than a symbolic move and one with minute economic ramifications. This example is emblematic of many others, where a president is in office at a time of great challenge with few, if any, methods to combat that challenge. Regardless, the American populace assigns the president that responsibility. With this much blame assigned to the White House, the president is left with no choice but to mount what in large part is a public relations campaign. Ironically, this dynamic often benefits presidents: if life is good for your average American, the president sees boosts in favorability ratings, even though they had little — if anything — to do with it. 

This dynamic is widespread, and one the president often has to deal with daily. If a president’s agenda is stalled by a senator or congressperson, for example as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, recently did with Biden’s Build Back Better, the president, not Congress, takes the fall. Presidents even see blowback when the judiciary takes action that runs contrary to their agenda. Aspects like the stock market are also applicable. 

Unfortunately for American presidents, both former and future, this dynamic is unlikely to change. It is a result of human nature, conjoined with an often lack of civics within the populace. Until it changes, presidents will be left to continue to take credit for undeserving positives when they can and launch PR campaigns in defense of their administration when battling a bloodthirsty press. If Americans want that cycle to end, it’s going to have to happen on their own accord.

Devon Hesano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at dehesano@umich.edu