Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents

Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents

Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents

Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents

Synopsis

"With elections drawing fewer and fewer voters, today's presidents govern increasingly on the strength of support from (little understood) public-opinion polls. People are concerned that a public-relations presidency has become a dominant force in politics. Will war and peace be determined not on their merits but on their predicted poll impact?" "Follow the Leader is the first systematic account of how modern presidents from Truman to Bush have been shaped by changes in the polls and their own choices about them. What accommodations do the presidents make to polls? What have been the effects on foreign policy and legislation? Looking beyond individual cases in order to highlight trends, the book draws on the latest social science techniques to reveal influences on the polls that are beyond presidential control. The authors also explain how the media subtly affect our understanding of poll data. Some recent presidents are seen in a new perspective. Carter, for example, emerges as "the median president": average in activity, success in Congress, and public support. Follow the Leader shows that presidents often do make Faustian bargains on behalf of their popularity, but they get surprisingly little in return. For example, while it is true that the use of force by the United States abroad has followed bad economic times at home much more frequently than would be expected by chance, the use of force itself does not boost a president's popularity. In fact, foreign policy activities show a variety of different effects. There is an uneasy balance at best between being liked and being president. Conventional wisdom suggests that popular presidents are strong leaders. But Brace and Hinckley demonstrate that things are not so simple. Indeed, presidents who structured their agendas solely on the basis of public approval would often be making choices the American people would not support. The popular rating-the-presidents game, engaged in by journalists and the public, is played out in a widening vacuum of knowledge. In this state of confusion about what the polls mean and how they should be interpreted, Follow the Leader offers an account both sobering and enlightening. The polls are here to stay, but people will look at them differently after reading this book." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

People worry about a public-relations presidency: a pattern of action in the White House that gives high priority to public support. Nowhere is this problem clearer than on questions of a president's approval ratings, as shown by the public-opinion polls. Presidents are constantly evaluated by these ratings and appear to take actions in terms of them. Yet, many of the strongest influences on the polls are beyond the presidents' control, and many of the choices they make the public might not approve of. We find an uneasy balance at best between being liked and being president. As the polls grow in importance, the balance becomes more precarious.

At the same time, there is a growing gap between what political scientists know about these approval ratings and what the public knows and learns from the media. Citizens see one president in office at a time, along with the particular cult wisdom that flourishes around the individual. Political scientists study recurring patterns among different presidents, compare their performances, and predict, with increasing accuracy, the actions they will take and the results that will follow. Consequently, the popular evaluate-the-presidents game, engaged in by journalists and the public, is played in a widening vacuum of knowledge. Citizens rally around the president in times of crisis, and political scientists . . .

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