Popular Images of American Presidents

Popular Images of American Presidents

Popular Images of American Presidents

Popular Images of American Presidents


The contributors to this volume examine the popular images of 22 American presidents. They attempt to determine the public standing of these presidencies and consider each president in terms of his image over time. It is argued that fluctuations in succeeding generations' interpretations of past presidents are significant to understanding the kaleidoscopic nature of presidential images. A variety of analytical approaches is employed, including examination of historical narrative, content analysis of editorials and news coverage, and explication of public opinion survey data.


After two months of President Ronald Reagan's administration, public opinion survey data indicated that the president (despite his popular reputation as a successful president) had the lowest approval rating at that period of any modern president, and that he had the highest disapproval rating (24 percent). Similar readings were taken in 1982 at his low point, although his 1986 post-Iceland summit approval ratings were in the 70 percent plus range.

In the early months Reagan's approval rating was lower than that of Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Ford--and even President Nixon--at this early stage. How can this be explained?

The polling data probably tell us more about the state of mind of the American public in 1981 than they do about President Reagan's actual performance in the White House (after all, these data are from the early days). Why did President Reagan at that point (and at times during the 1982 recession) have relatively lower approval ratings than other presidents?

Part of the problem may have been unrealistic expectations on the American public's part. Before President Reagan took office on January 20, 1981, Wall Street had been optimistic, and the stock market began to rise markedly after the November 1980 election. Some felt that this was the result of high expectations about what Reagan could achieve as president in improving economic conditions. After the inauguration the market fell for several months; some observers felt that this was the result of dashed hopes, as it became clear that the new president would not balance the budget at an early date or keep some other campaign promises. The same phenomenon occurred after the election of previous presidents including President Carter and others.

The same psychological phenomenon that could be observed on Wall Street and in the business community could also be found among the American public, as reflected in the public opinion results. And yet the public at large at that early stage indicated some willingness to be patient with the new president. At a comparable point in 1977, four years earlier, President Carter had a similar problem, but his approval rating was higher than that of his successor after the . . .

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