Manager of the Economy

"Full dinner pail" lantern from William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt's 1900 campaign

One of the major reasons for calling delegates to Philadelphia in 1787 was to resolve economic problems arising from the Articles of Confederation. We expect our presidents to maintain prosperity, resolve disruptive strikes, keep employment full and the various markets healthy.

Even though his power to control the economy is actually quite limited, woe to the chief executive who governs during an economic downturn and is perceived as ineffectual or indifferent. The politician in each president knows what it takes to remain popular. In the words of political consultant James Carville, "It's the economy, stupid."

Button from William J. Clinton's 1992 campaign
Candidates run on the promise of creating sustained economic prosperity, and the public expects them to deliver. One of the ongoing debates in American history has been the degree to which the government should protect local industries versus encourage free trade. At times this hotly contested issue has dominated presidential elections.
Truckers' protest poster
The increasing influence of the federal government over the economy has led many Americans to expect the president to maintain the nation's financial health. This includes restraining the price of oil, controlling inflation, and providing a reasonable minimum-wage standard.

Pullman strike photograph
In the name of national security or preserving the general welfare, presidents have used their office to settle labor disputes or affect business practices. Both unions and companies have suffered the consequences of presidential wrath.

In 1894 President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops in Chicago to break a strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company that was threatening to disrupt the nationwide rail system.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Trustbusting cartoon

President Theodore Roosevelt led a campaign against the abuses of large monopolies and called for several corporations, including Standard Oil, to be broken up. This cartoon from the November 4, 1906, St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows Roosevelt aiming a cannon at the oil trust.

Courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the homeless built ramshackle dwellings on empty lots across the country and named these "towns" Hooverville after the president they felt had abandoned them. This one was in Seattle.

Courtesy of University of Washington Library

National Recovery Administration Poster
Herbert Hoover's failure to aggressively meet the challenge of the 1930s depression ended his political career, while Franklin D. Roosevelt's willingness to experiment with untried solutions made him a hero to many Americans for generations.

The National Recovery Administration (NRA) created in 1933 was a keystone of Roosevelt's New Deal program. It aimed to set standards for production, prices, and wages in every industry. It specified maximum hours, minimum wages, safety requirements, and the right to unionize, centralizing economic power in the executive branch as never before. Although declared unconstitutional in 1935, the NRA opened the door for ever-increasing federal oversight of the economy.

Sewell Avery, president of Montgomery Ward, was removed from his office in 1944 for refusing to comply with the rulings of Franklin D. Roosevelt's National War Labor Board. The army oversaw operations of Montgomery Ward until the end of World War II.

Courtesy of George Meany Memorial Archives.
Buttons protesting Ronald Reagan's firing of members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981 for violating laws against federal employee strikes.