The Polls: Public Opinion and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

By Panagopoulos, Costas | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Polls: Public Opinion and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld


Panagopoulos, Costas, Presidential Studies Quarterly


George W. Bush's secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has been characterized as a "central political figure in our time." (1) He is also one of the most controversial and contentious cabinet members of the Bush administration. Analysts argue Rumsfeld is simultaneously "widely admired" and "ever so widely resented," even as critics rile charges of failed leadership against him. (2) Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has oversight of military operations and considerable influence over the Pentagon budget, has publicly stated he has "no confidence in the defense secretary." (3) Despite these criticisms, Rumsfeld, who has been described as "one of the most high-profile, powerful and polarizing Defense secretaries since Robert McNamara in the 1960s," remains a leading advisor to the president and was tapped by President Bush for an extended tour of duty as secretary of defense in his second administration. (4)

The events following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that ensued, have catapulted Secretary Rumsfeld into the national spotlight. This attention has enabled Americans to monitor and assess his performance as secretary of defense. This article investigates the public's evaluations of Secretary Rumsfeld's job performance over time. It also seeks to explain the patterns in opinion we observe. More generally, this study assesses the degree to which the public's evaluations of key cabinet members, such as Donald Rumsfeld, impact public evaluations of the president.

As a theoretical matter, we may expect that presidents, as rational actors, may act to maximize their own popularity by replacing unpopular cabinet members, but this is reasonable only if there exists a relationship between cabinet member performance ratings and presidential approval. Lacking evidence of such a direct link, it is not clear that presidents stand to benefit much from dismissing cabinet secretaries, even if they are unpopular. An alternative possibility is that presidents will not mind unpopular subordinates as their lack of popularity may deflect criticism away from the president and onto the subordinate, distancing the president from direct fallout. In both of these scenarios, however, unpopular subordinates are not, at a minimum, adversely affecting public evaluations of presidential performance. Under such circumstances, subordinates are expected to survive, whereas a president may have incentives to dismiss unpopular administration officials whose poor approval ratings hurt the president's directly. This may help to explain why Secretary Rumsfeld, for example, remains a central figure in the Bush administration despite calls for his resignation. A growing literature reflects on conditions under which principals (prime ministers, presidents) may sack agents (cabinet members) (Palmer 1995), and this study aims to present an examination of the U.S. case.

Public Opinion and Donald Rumsfeld

The American public's attitudes about Donald Rumsfeld have been regularly assessed by polling organizations during his tenure as secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administrations. This article examines the dynamics of public opinion toward Rumsfeld between October 2001 and January 2005. (5) Quarterly data on Rumsfeld's job approval ratings are displayed in Figure 1. The data presented reveal variation in job approval between 2001 and 2005 and also show that the public's evaluation of Rumsfeld's performance as secretary of defense has declined steadily during this period. Rumsfeld's job approval rating, which exceeded 90 percent in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, has hovered around 50 percent in the four most recent quarters included in the analysis. In fact, Rumsfeld's job approval has declined in every quarter except two over this time period. For the first time in the series, a majority of Americans indicated they disapproved of Rumsfeld's job performance during the fourth quarter of 2004. …

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