George W. Bush gave your daughters syphilis.
He caused gas prices to rise and fall and rise and fall and rise a lot and fall again and rise and fall.
He also ended a terrible drought after the American people sacrificed hundreds of fat Texas cattle in his name.
And so the list goes.
We love to blame our presidents when things go wrong, and occasionally credit them when things go right. But the president is a mascot, or perhaps the American people's lucky sock. At best, he is a household god, capable of small magics in his own domain beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. But when more powerful forces are set in motion, he cannot alter our fates.
It's not that presidents are powerless. Policies matter. Cut gas taxes and the price of gas will be lower. Make the regulatory environment substantially friendlier to job creation, and business owners may find themselves marginally more willing to hire an extra worker. But the actions of presidents matter less than headlines might lead you to believe—especially when economic and cultural forces are in play.
Here's the lede of a Guardian article on trends in teen sexual health from 2002 to 2007:
Teenage pregnancies and syphilis have risen sharply among a generation of American school girls who were urged to avoid sex before marriage under George Bush's evangelically-driven education policy, according to a new report by the US's major public health body.
(Note: The Guardian article is much funnier translated into German, which I don't read—thanks Bill Clinton, I blame you for my decision to select French in 7th grade and my crappy monolingual public school education. But language skills or no, I am pretty sure that having the word syphilis and any word that begins with schwang that close together can't be good. And what is to blame? A president who is "evangelikalen.")
Over at Daily Kos, diarist ultimatically is calling this small increase in pregnancies the Bush Baby Boom, accusing "Bush and his band of religious blue-ballers" of thinking that "if we stop teaching em about safe sex and stop providing them with protection then they will stop humping each other." [italics in original] The new CDC figures, s/he writes, prove that those godly nuts were "not only wrong but also dangerous." But the Kos diarist suffers from the same madness of which he accuses Bush.
Stop and think for a minute about the idea that a trickle of abstinence-only education mandates were the decisive factor when individual kids were deciding whether or not to pass along the old neapolitan bone ache. Just for starters, decisions about whether to slide on millions of condoms in the last eight years might have been influenced by the substantial reduction in the fear of AIDS, increased availability of the Pill to tweens, the brands and varieties of condoms on the market, the absence of STDs in High School Musical, or the attitudes of post-Boomer parents. All things over which the president has little or no power.
In defense of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the "major public health body" named above, the report makes absolutely no mention of Bush, evangelical Christianity, abstinence education, or other political matter. The Guardian gets around to mentioning this detail about the report in the sixth paragraph. The CDC characterizes its own finding much more cautiously with this headline on the press release: "Improvements in Sexual and Reproductive Health of Teens and Young Adults Slowing."
But the belief in the power of the presidency is bulletproof, the minds of newspapermen (and their readers) leap to the president whenever trends happen in convenient four- or eight-year windows, and sometimes even when they don't.
The notion of the totemic presidency operates on both side of the aisle, of course, and being close to power doesn't seem to puncture the illusion. If anything, the closer you are to the presidency, the worse it gets. In a recent hilarious interview, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) offered this meditation on the role of the president in American life. "I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president Jimmy Carter."
Credit Bachmann for saying that she's "not blaming this on President Obama." And laugh at her for the ridiculousness of the suggestion (and its inaccuracy: it was Ford, not Carter on the first round). But don't feel too superior. Bachmann may feature her own odd psychological quirks, but blaming Democrats for swine flu is only a smidge more absurd than blaming Bush for failing to control world energy markets or teen sexual behavior.
Job creation is perhaps the most persistent and damaging myth of presidential power. Think about the number of moving parts in the economy. Think about the number of moving parts in George W. Bush's head. The very phrase "Bush created jobs" is absurd. But even if the president were a brilliant PhD economist he couldn't create jobs, any more than George W. Bush could manage to give 130,569 teenage girls the six-o-six.
The world is a complicated place. Effects have many causes. We want our president to be a powerful man—we are comforted by the idea that, even if we are not in control, someone is. We even prefer the idea of a malevolent force running things for evil purposes over the belief that no one, anywhere, has much power to change the course of history, or even the price of gas.
Of course, some things are the president's fault. The Iraq War? Go ahead and blame Bush for that one.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.