The Polls: Change and Stability in Public Assessments of Personal Traits, Bill Clinton, 1993-99

By Cohen, Jeffrey E. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Polls: Change and Stability in Public Assessments of Personal Traits, Bill Clinton, 1993-99


Cohen, Jeffrey E., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Bill Clinton's tenure as president was, on one hand, propitious and lucky, with the nation generally at peace and prosperous. But his tenure was also marked by scandal. Few presidents have been put under such close public scrutiny for their personal behavior in office. Clinton's scandal-plagued presidency allows us to address the questions of whether, how, and why public evaluations of the personal attributes of presidents may change or resist change. We know much about changes in public evaluations of presidential job performance. The public seems to alter its view of job performance in reasonable ways, with the peaks and valleys of public approval covarying with economic tides as the most well-known and documented relationship. But we do not know much about whether the public will alter its perception of the president as a person across the incumbent's time in office.

There are good reasons to suggest that the public's perceptions of the president's personal traits should not change very much across the course of an administration. First, inasmuch as these personal presidential traits are rooted in personality, we should not expect much alteration in public perceptions. By the time a president has come to office, his personality structure should be relatively fixed and stable, in other words, matured (although not necessarily mature). Psychologists inform us that most personality development is realized by late adolescence or early adulthood. Hence, we should not expect presidents to undergo major personality transformations while in office. Moreover, the electoral process should weed out those candidates who exhibit major personality disorders, as well as those with very pliable and/or unformed personalities. Much of the psychological school of presidential research (e.g., Barber 1972; George 1998; Renshon 1996) is grounded in this conception: that by the time the president has taken office, his personality and associated traits are, for all practical purposes, in place and discernable. In fact, Barber's (1972) bold claim of being able to "predict" presidential behavior before the incumbent even assumes office is predicated on such reasoning.

This personality stability argument does not, however, say anything about public perceptions and assessments of presidents. Given the climate of intense media scrutiny during the primary and general election campaigns, it is possible that the public is presented with enough information about the incoming president to make reasonable judgments about his personal nature and attributes. Clearly, media handlers, campaign managers, and election strategists deem to present their candidate's best face and image before the public. Yet, events occur in campaigns that not only call for strategic responses but elicit the candidate's personal reactions. How does the candidate respond to attacks from the opposition? Is he or she calm and cool or hotheaded and easily irritated? Does he or she seem to enjoy political competition, or is he or she seemingly motivated more by duty or ambition or some other base attitude or emotion? The rough and tumble of the electoral season, the rise of unexpected events, media frenzies, and the like, probably provide ample opportunity for the public to learn something about what kind of person is running for office.

Moreover, the quantity of information presented during the campaign probably also means that public attitudes and perceptions toward the candidates are relatively firmly set. Early in the campaign, before the public possesses much information about the candidates, attitudes toward the candidates may be soft and malleable. But once the information necessary to make judgments about the candidates is at hand, it may be hard to shake or change the public's assessments of the person elected. And all the techniques of Madison Avenue and the advertising industry may be incapable of fundamentally altering how the public feels about its leading political leader. …

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