Looking Back at Chief Executives: Retrospective Presidential Approval

Article excerpt

Americans hold their chief executive in high esteem. Schoolchildren view the president as a benevolent and capable leader, a person who symbolizes the good in the American system of government.(1) Feelings of awe for the president wane with the passing from childhood to adult life but do not disappear completely. The incumbent president ranked first in the Gallup poll's "most admired man" survey in thirty-nine of the forty-seven years in which the question was asked. Between 1977 and 1996, the incumbent president was the "most admired man" in every year but 1980, when Pope John Paul II topped the poll. Both Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan led the polls continuously during their respective eight years in the White House. Gerald Ford is the only post-World War II president to never rate as the "most admired man" in America, but this is hardly a damning criticism given that Gallup skipped the question in 1975 and 1976. Moreover, out of the public eye does not necessarily mean out of the public's mind. Former presidents frequently appear among the top ten in Gallup's "most admired man" poll. For example, Jimmy Carter, Reagan, and George Bush appeared on the list behind front-runner Bill Clinton in the 1994, 1995, and 1996 polls, respectively.(2)

This high level of support has not, however, prevented the public from being critical of a president's performance while in office. At their most popular, Richard Nixon and Reagan secured the approval of only two-thirds of the American people. Ford and Carter did only slightly better. Every president also experiences a decline in popularity during his term of office, although for some the fall from grace is more extreme.(3) The difference between John F. Kennedy's highest and lowest approval ratings was just 27 percentage points. Harry Truman's popularity, by contrast, plunged 64 percentage points during his term. On average, the difference between a president's highest and lowest approval ratings is 42 percentage points.(4)

Assessments of presidential performance are not limited to the current occupant of the White House. In addition to asking people to judge the incumbent's performance, the Gallup poll occasionally asks its respondents whether they approve or disapprove of the ways in which past presidents handled the job. How do Americans view their former presidents? What factors explain levels of retrospective presidential approval? Do public and scholarly opinions of former presidents agree? The present article addresses these questions.

"Looking back" is a common activity of the American public. As V. O. Key Jr. and Morris Fiorina have aptly demonstrated, voters' judgments often hinge on their perceptions of past performance of the parties. Candidates are rewarded or punished in line with appraisals of achievements in office, and voters look to the past in predicting future deeds of the parties.(5) The substantial decrease in voter participation since 1960 has been attributed to declining partisanship within the electorate and growing distrust of government. These attitudes reflect discontent with the past performances of the parties and government officials.(6) Assessments of former presidents might well contribute to these images of the political system.

Retrospective Presidential Approval

In 1990, Gallup poll respondents were asked, "From what you have read or remember about our past presidents, please tell me if you approve or disapprove of the way they handled their job as president." A similar question was asked in 1993.(7) Table 1 presents the results of these surveys of former presidents' performances. The retrospective approval ratings of the presidents included in both polls are remarkably similar (r = .98). The greatest difference is seen in Kennedy's approval ratings, which dropped 6 percentage points from 1990 to 1993. This is hardly significant, however, because it is at the edges of the [+ or -] 3 percent margin of error for these polls. …

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