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Warren Harding, widely regarded as one of the worst Presidents in United States history, also had perhaps the best record for peace and prosperity. How can that be? In this EconTalk episode, host Russ Roberts welcomes back NYU political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita to discuss the fascinating (albeit depressing) correlation between presidential popularity and war-making. Why does public opinion seem to regard war so favorably? How do we assess the performance of US Presidents, and how should we?

1. How does Bueno de Mesquita describe the different ways in which war is waged in autocracies versus democracies? Why is war approached so differently by each?2. As Roberts notes, this conversation is filled with “what if’s,” such as, what if the American Revolution hadn’t occurred? Perhaps the more interesting part of this thread of conversation dealt with perceptions of British tyranny. To what extent were claims of British tyranny over the American colonists overblown? How might this have affected the course of the Revolution?

3. After their examination of the founding father, George Washington, the two turn to Abraham Lincoln, who Bueno de Mesquita also claims proceeded with the Civil War in furtherance of his own interest. Yet he also claims that proceeding with the war was a mistake. Why was it a mistake for Lincoln, and what does Bueno de Mequita claim Lincoln should have done instead?

4. Toward the end of the conversation, Bueno de Mesquita asks a very provocative question. How would you answer the following: Is the job of the President to be a politician who follows opinion, or a leader who shapes opinion?

5. The conversation closes with Bueno de Mesquita’s outline of a plan for the public to be more informed about the potential costs and consequences of war. What do you find to be the key points to the plan, and what do you think it’s potential for success?