Dr. Chris Dolan

Dr. Chris Dolan, along with John Frendreis and Ray Tatalovich, Publishes “A Presidential Economic Scorecard: Performance and Perception,” in PS: Political Science and Politics.Scorecard


Dr. Chris Dolan of the Department of Political Science has co-authored an article on presidential performance and perception. Prior to the publication of this article, there was little to no research in the political science literature concerned with whether or not citizen perceptions of the economy are consistent with actual economic conditions as measured by unemployment, inflation, productivity, GDP, and the current account balance (U.S. exports minus U.S. imports of goods and services). This article utilizes the Gallup “most important” problem question to examine the percentage of citizens who express perceptions of economic performance during each presidential term from 1949 to 2008. The data they generated was used to construct a comparative Presidential Economic Scorecard, which reveals that the public correctly perceived unemployment and the general economy (GDP) as salient national problems, but not inflation.

Among their more compelling findings is that public perceptions of inflation became more salient under Nixon, Ford, and Carter, when the actual four-year inflation rate escalated to 4.6 percent, 8.2 percent, and 10.4 percent respectively. Carter ranks last on both the actual inflation rate and public perceptions of inflation while his successor, Ronald Reagan, ranked ninth in public perceptions of inflation even though the actual inflation rate of 5.1 percent ranked Reagan as having the 13th-worst performance. The public undoubtedly believed that 5.1 percent was a substantial improvement over the 10.4 percent average for the Carter years, and this comparison was more compelling than the fact that the Reagan inflation rate was worse than any other presidential term except Nixon-Ford and Carter.

Furthermore, economic concerns for the six presidential terms of Nixon/Ford through Clinton were linked to public apprehension about the unemployment rate, but that was not the situation during the second term of President George W. Bush. Economic anxiety was not linked to the relatively low unemployment rate or the relatively average inflation rate. What dragged down the overall ranking for President George W. Bush was economic growth (ranked 15 of 15), productivity (ranked 12 of 15), and the current account balance (ranked 15 of 15). While these indicators may explain why the 2005–2008 term performed so poorly, those statistics do not necessarily account for public perceptions of economic anxiety.

This article emerged from their co-authored book, The Presidency and Economic Policy. The research conducted for the book and the 2009 article has led Dolan to pursue broader research on the economic components and implications of strategic U.S. foreign policy decisions at the elite level.

Dr. Dolan's final assessment: “We conclude that public perceptions coincide with economic reality, particularly with respect to unemployment and the general health of the economy, but not regarding inflation.”

Online Resource