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