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America vs.

The President: Scapegoating the Commander in Chief


by jedkucharczk

Presidential approval ratings from 1946 to 2009; note the trend of approval ratings typically experiencing a net decrease thr oughout a presidents term (the only exception being Clinton) and the fluctuations coinciding with major events. I am not a Democrat. I do not like Barack Obama. And yet I find myself defending him when others attack him.

Despite being the most prototypical Democracy across the globe, the U.S. government has always been popularly defined by one person; the president. In reality however, the United States government is an intricate network of different branches, institutions, and most importantly, people. So why is it that the president gets all the credit and especially the blame? Its human nature to identify cause and effect and attribute things to other things to find reasons; this is how we understand the world and our existence in relation to it. If we find ourselves incapable of explaining something due to a missing piece of the puzzle, impatience, or often denial, we feel uncomfortable and we become distressed. When were distressed, we make errors.

We attribute occurrences to other occurrences or to people themselves; typically the latter. The Fundamental Attribution Error is a concept in psychology suggesting that we as humans tend to put too much emphasis on a persons innate qualities rather than the impact of the situation on peoples decisions within those situations. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is when you meet someone for the first time and they seem negative and irritable; instead of assuming something bad may have happened to them recently, one would likely assume theyre a naturally unsociable person.

The president is ultimate recipient of this erroneous attribution. People seem to forget the numerous people advising him both directly and indirectly as well as the tendency for a diplomatic or domestic situation to be a paradoxical Catch-22. Bad thingsdo happen following a presidents decisions, and can be caused by them, but why? Here are some common responses you might get if you asked a random U.S. citizen, or even someone outside of the United States:

He doesnt know what hes doing.

He doesnt understand the economy.

He doesnt know whats best for the country.

All of these answers point to one thing; a flaw of the president. Most presidents have had either an extensive education in law and/or political science and/or experience in the military or other fields related to the government; they do know what theyre doing, and they do understand the economy. These sorts of answers aside from the last, which is a matter of differing political views are reductive. So, when a presidents decision(s) are followed by negative consequences, why? More often than not, external forces are the main culprits for negative consequences from executive choices such as bill introductions and executive orders. Much of the time these things are deci sions made under lose-lose circumstances, and the president is only attempting damage control; the outcome will be negative no matter what the president does. Using a current example, the economy, Obama has implemented several attempts to patch up the economic chaos weve experienced in the past decade or so, but it doesnt seem to get any better despite clear data suggesting job growth and a gradual decrease in unemployment over the past few years.

Unemployment is still high, though. Its getting better, but its still high, and thats all people really care about; progress isnt enough, especially for the people who are still directly effected by the issue. So why do we blame economic downturns on presidents? Why do we blame immense debts on presidents? Why do we seem to blame everything negative on the president, and only occasionally attribute positive things to the executive? The latter aspect of presidential blaming is easily explained by the negative bias, which speaks for itself; were naturally inclined to notice and put more emphasis on the negative than the positive.

Another issue is the confirmation bias; someone who opposes the current president or his party may inadvertently twist information in order to confirm their beliefs and either ignore or attempt to invalidate any evidence contrary to their beliefs. The same goes for a supporter.

When Osama Bin Ladens death occurred, there was instantly cheering and celebration and a resurgence in patriotism. Barack Ob ama was praised by democrats. Republicans were quick to point out that the war on terrorism, and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, was put into motion by Republican president George W. Bush.

If we also take a look back at the unemployment graph above, a supporter of Barack Obama may use the gradual 4-year decrease in unemployment to tout the presidents efforts, while an opponent may completely ignore the graphic or attribute the decrease to something unrelated to the president. Which one is correct, though? Both but its complicated. And we dont like things that are hard to understand.

One of the main reasons for blaming the president rather than outside forces, the most likely culprit, is that blaming the president is much easier than not; its a lot easier to assume the flaws of someone than to figure out the true cause of something, which is often extremely complicated (particularly in the realms of national government, politics, the economy, and social issues). Instead of making a logical effort with the risk of being wrong, we prefer not to make an effort and be wrong. So, what happens when we cant blame someone? We find a way, because we need the comfort of knowing why something is.

As an extension of our inherent need to identify the cause of something, theres the Scapegoat Theory; a scapegoat being an i ndividual or group that gets blamed for something that isnt really their fault. The Jews were blamed for the plague centuries ago and now Latinos are bei ng blamed for a lack of jobs and unemployment. Since the advent of our Democracy weve been scapegoating the pres ident once again, because its easy, and we need someone to blame.

There is still one core issue related to all of these concepts; ignorance. Ignorance results in the blaming of the president for our nations woes primarily through people who simply dont understand how the government works who would rather blame the president than figure out the real, complicated reason(s) for why things happen. People are lazy. Most of us would rather make careless dismissals of the president rather than research and educate ourselves on the true reasons for why things that happen within our country, simply because its easier and still gives us the sense of comfort however false it may be we need in order to feel secure. Now, Im not saying presidents cant make mistakes. They can, and they do. But the extent to which I find my fellow U.S. citizens attributing the nations problems to the president of the United States is entirely unfounded and the result of widespread ignorance which leads to a reductive way of thinking about the government; and this way of thinking needs to be changed for the future health of our country.

So the next time you find someone blaming the economy on Obama or any other president, past or future, remind them that we live in a mixed market, capitalism-based economy which is only partly influenced by the government. Also remind them that Congress is the primary body involved in economic regulation. Remind them that our country is a federal system where the national government does not have full authority over the economy as well. When someone complains about Obamacare, let them blame Obama, but also tell them to blame the Congress members who voted for the bill, the citizens who voted for the Congress members, and the citizens who voted for Barack Obama. When you hear Jimmy Carter getting crucified for his decisions regarding the Iranian Hostage Crisis, remind people that Operation Eagle Claw was decided on and orchestrated by dozens of people. Remind them that the hostages

were taken and kept by Iranian revolutionaries, not given to them by Jimmy Carter. Remind people that no decision in the national government is made alone, and remind them that we live in a representative democracy where we ultimately decide the direction of the nation.