Written by Michael Blake, University of Washington

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Those who dislike a president tend to emphasize the frequency or skill with which he lies.

During the Trump administration, for instance, The Washington Post kept a running database of the president’s lies and deceptions – with the final tally running to over 30,000 falsehoods. President Joe Biden’s critics have insisted that he, too, is a liar – and that the media is complicit in ignoring his supposed frequent deception of the American people.

The frequency of these criticisms would seem to indicate that most people do not want a president who lies. And yet a recent study of presidential deception found that all American presidents – from Washington to Trump – have told lies, and knowingly so, in their public statements. The most effective of presidents have sometimes been effective precisely because they were skilled at manipulation and deception.

As a political philosopher with a focus on how people try to reason together through political disagreement, I argue that what matters most is not whether a president lies, but when and why he does so.

Presidents who lie to save their own public image or career are unlikely to be forgiven. However, those who appear to lie in the service of the public are often celebrated.