The Bias Against Presidential Restraint
24 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2019 Last revised: 27 Mar 2019
Date Written: March 22, 2019
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.
Keywords: Presidential Studies, American History, American Politics, Divided Government
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