It is common to assume that most significant trends in the political economy of a nation can be explained by the executive in charge at the time they happen. Is something good happening in the county? Well, if you like the President, then it is clearly because of his leadership. Are terrible things happening? Well if you hate the bastard in charge, then it is clearly his fault. (Alternatively, silence is usually sufficient to handle the matter in the event that bad things happen under the guy you like or good ones happen under someone you think of as a terrible leader.) The assumption that a leader you support is responsible for the good and one you don’t is clearly the cause of the bad rolls rather easily off the tongue or the keyboard, but that assumption itself is built on a lot of other assumptions.
…many of them quite sketchy.
Of course this is not entirely unique to the Presidency or any comparable executive offices found in other nations. kings, queens, emperors and prime ministers can easily find a place in this rhetoric, but can also be applied to less powerful forms of leadership. State local officials, school boards, or even municipal leadership can get this treatment. Folks will apply this assumption to all sorts of leadership, but there does seem to be something about a national executive that invites people to see them as sufficiently powerful to be the cause of most anything that needs a cause to explain it. They are also uniquely responsible for responding to national challenges, regardless of the actual cause of those challenges, and the rhetoric of responsibility shades easily into ideas of causation. So, a perfectly reasonable effort to hold a leader responsible for dealing with a problem that occurs on her watch can easily take the form of a not-so-reasonable effort to blame them for the existence of the problem in the first place.
For years, I found myself repeating the line “Post Cheeto, ergo proper Cheeto” in response to those giving Donald Trump credit for the upward economic stats that occurred under his presidency (often without acknowledging that these were a continuation of trends starting under Obama). Insulting digs aside, it is tempting to think of such ideas as a variation of the post-hoc fallacy. Still, the issue here is not really reducible to a timeline. At least part of the thinking behind these efforts to give an executive credit (or blame) for things they didn’t really bring about themselves has more to do with the role of authority in creating economic change. So, the rationale for the inference is as much about unrealistic ideas about how authority works as it is a clear sense of a timeline.
There is big difference between saying that a politician is responsible for dealing with a problem, or even saying that he is not doing a good job of dealing with a problem, and saying that he was the cause of it to begin with. There is also a big difference between saying that specific actions taken by a leader of any type have had specific effects (good or bad) and merely assuming that they must be the cause because they appear to be in charge (and of course the actual limits of authority are a big part of the baggage that must be unpacked to sort out how some of these problems occur and just what we can expect leaders to do about them). The casual assumption that your guy must have been the cause of all the good things happening around you or that the other bastard must be the source of all the misery converts an empirical question about the effects of specific actions on a political economy into a stock narrative. The leader you love becomes a human cornucopia from whom all things delightful and delicious flow, and the one you hate becomes the bastard who explains everything from the price of milk to the pothole down the street.
Any specific claim that a leader has caused things to happen on their watch should be supported by some form of evidence to that effect. The casual assumption that someone is in charge and therefore whatever happens on their watch can be attributed to them on that basis alone is problematic, to say the least.
This isn’t quite a post-hoc fallacy.
Let’s just say it’s post-hoc adjacent.