I'm a big fan of Black Swan theory, which says that although leaders are measured by the Big Things that happen, they are rarely given credit for policies or actions that prevent Big Things from happening in the first place. Since it's impossible to wind back the clock and do the redo the experiment, we are left victims of the narrative fallacy, our desperate need to explain everything even when the real cause is unknowable, and to assign credit or blame to people (like the President) who have very little real influence compared to the collective, independent actions of the rest of us.
Think how history would look back on the past eight years if we had a President who had done this:
- Instead of focusing on the economy, he wasted his first year in office on a quixotic push to pass intrusive Homeland Security laws like the one forcing airlines to put locks on cockpit doors. Experts agree this had no effect on safety, as shown by the complete lack of hijackings since.
- Second year in office, he forced burdensome new regulations on business transparency that devastated many innocent companies, forcing needless management changes at great American companies like Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, and others. It’s a miracle these companies still exist.
- Iraq War: rather than leave the task to international inspectors, he wasted a trillion dollars removing a dictator who experts agree presented no serious long-term threat.
- New Orleans levee protection: in a blatantly corrupt attempt to reward his cronies and win votes, he poured excessive federal money into a crash program to over-build flood levees when it’s now obvious that even during a large storm like Hurricane Katrina, the original levees would have held just fine.
- Millions of poor families remain stuck in rental housing because of his refusal to continue the wise policies of the 1990s that offered a chance at home ownership to everyone. The economy is now paying the price, with stalled housing values and a stock market that barely rises past the inflation rate.
Nobody, not even the wisest expert out there, can predict the Biggest Thing that will happen to the next President. But any pre-emptive thing he does will be judged unkindly by history precisely because the Biggest Disaster he prevents is the one that never happens.