John K. White: The Death of a Presidency

Roundup: Historians' Take

[John Kenneth White is a professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2003).

The George W. Bush presidency is finished....

... George W. Bush’s troubles are profound. And when presidents are beleaguered, they often look to their predecessors for guidance. At first glance, Bush can take heart from their experiences. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, three other presidents have faced poorly in public opinion polls and have recovered their standing. Harry S. Truman’s first term is a case in point. In 1946, Truman’s approval rating dipped to just 27 percent, as Americans were fed up with labor strikes, meat shortages, and Truman’s inability to cope.42 Nearly forty years later, Ronald Reagan was rocked by the Iran-Contra affair, and his approval ratings fell from 62 percent to 47 percent.43 Bill Clinton took a similar tumble: he began his presidency with 58 percent support, but by 1994 his approval rating fell to 41 percent.44 Clinton’s big government health care plan along with his “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy allowing gays to serve in the military left voters thinking that instead of electing a New Democrat, they might just have chosen George McGovern.

Yet, Truman, Reagan, and Clinton recovered because they could change the subject. Harry Truman’s failure to keep the Democrats in control of Congress in 1946, gave him a perfect opportunity to rail against a “Do-Nothing Congress” in 1948. Suddenly, the focus was back to the domestic New Deal-Fair Deal issues that always worked for Democrats. And—much to everyone’s surprise—Truman kept his job.

Ronald Reagan learned from the Truman experience. While the Contras may have been important to Reagan personally, effecting a regime change in Nicaragua was never central to his presidency. What mattered to Reagan’s followers was reducing taxes and winning the Cold War against the hated Soviet “evil empire.” After the Iran-Contra scandal became known, Reagan dropped most references to the Sandinistas and returned to familiar themes. Also sustaining Reagan was the public’s affection for him. At the height of the Iran- Contra affair, 75 percent said they liked Reagan personally, while a mere 18 percent did not.

Perhaps no president knew better how to change the subject than Bill Clinton. After the drubbing he took in the 1994 midterm elections, Clinton ditched Hillary’s health care proposals and opted to enact bite-sized portions of them—e.g. insuring the children of the unemployed. Gays in the military were also forgotten, as Clinton turned his laser-like attention to family and values issues, including the desirability of having children wear school uniforms. In 1996, Clinton famously noted that “the era of big government is over,” and he signed a welfare reform bill over the objections of many Democrats. By echoing Reagan’s themes and keeping his focus on the middle class, Clinton won an easy victory over Bob Dole.

On the other hand, six presidents since FDR have failed to recoup their public standing: Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush. In 1952, Harry Truman saw his approval rating fall to a mere 22 percent after his administration became mired in the Korean War.47 Day after day, U.S. soldiers battled the North Koreans and Chinese for control of one small hill after another, without either side winning a decisive victory. Americans tired of Truman and felt he had no plan for resolving the conflict. Frustrated, they turned to Dwight D. Eisenhower—especially after the World War II general told voters, “I shall go to Korea.”

Lyndon B. Johnson had a similar experience as he saw his landslide victory melt in the Vietnamese tropical heat. A Gallup poll taken in August 1968 found just 35 percent giving him positive marks.49 In many ways, LBJ foresaw his political demise, telling columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak after the 1964 election:

I was just elected by the biggest popular margin in the history of the country, fifteen million votes. Just by the natural way people think and because Barry Goldwater scared the hell out of them, I have already lost two of these fifteen and am probably getting down to thirteen. If I get into any fight with Congress, I have already lost another couple of million, and if I have to send any more boys into Vietnam, I may be down to eight million by the end of the summer.

In 1973, Richard M. Nixon’s presidency was caught in the web of Watergate. Opinion polls showed Nixon with a dismal approval rating of 30 percent.51 Repeatedly, he tried to change the focus to other issues, at one point telling Congress in 1974, “One year of Watergate is enough.”52 But the Watergate tapes only intensified the media and public focus on Nixon’s wrongdoing. By the time he left office, just 24 percent approved of his performance.

Gerald R. Ford, too, suffered a crippling blow to his public esteem. Starting with a breathtaking 71 percent job approval, his support dropped 21 points after his decision to pardon Nixon.54 Declaring that Watergate had been “an American tragedy” and “someone must write the end to it,” Ford hoped the pardon would turn attention away from Nixon and toward more pressing matters—including high energy prices and a stubbornly persistent inflation rate.55 But 60 percent of the public thought Ford was wrong to issue the pardon, and 62 percent said it condoned two standards of justice: one for the rich and powerful; another for the ordinary citizen.56 Ford could not escape the political fallout: a 1976 exit poll found 14 percent cited Watergate and the Nixon pardon as important issues in making their presidential decision, and an overwhelming percentage of these disenchanted voters backed Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter was the fifth president to suffer a fatal blow in public support. At the onset of his presidency, Carter received a 66 percent job approval rating.58 Just three years later, Carter’s positive grades had plummeted to 29 percent.59 In response, Carter delivered his famous “malaise speech” and proclaimed a “crisis of confidence” in government.60 Voters disagreed, thinking the constitutional mechanisms still worked and that nothing was wrong with their character. But they thought something was decidedly wrong with Carter, and they ousted him in a landslide. The Iranian hostage crisis only served to emphasize Carter’s impotence and inability to change the subject. So great was the distaste for Carter that public disdain for him persisted long after his presidency ended: a 1988 Harris poll gave Carter the dubious distinction of being first (with 46 percent) in the category “least able to get things done.”61 Only recently has Carter recouped his public esteem thanks to an unusually effective post-presidency and a public longing for truth in government that has powered his latest book, Our Endangered Values, to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

George H. W. Bush also suffered a fatal fall in public esteem. Shortly after the Persian Gulf War, the elder Bush won plaudits and an 89 percent approval rating.63 But Americans are a restless people, and after the quick war the economy remained foremost on their minds. By 1992, voters thought Bush was inattentive to their concerns and he received a dismal 37 percent of the vote—exactly his approval rating in a pre-election Gallup poll.

What unites these six failed presidencies is each man’s inability to change the subject. Harry Truman could not get the public’s mind off the Korean War. Lyndon Johnson could not get people to focus on anything except Vietnam and race riots. Richard Nixon could not erase the airing of the Watergate tapes (even as he tried to erase them in fact). Gerald Ford could not ameliorate voter anger over the Nixon pardon. Jimmy Carter became identified with his malaise speech and the Iranian hostages. And George H. W. Bush was a foreign policy president at a time when voters could have cared less. George W. Bush is likely to share the fates of his predecessors for one reason: he can’t change the subject. Bush cannot take the focus away from Iraq, which continues to drain U.S. lives and resources with no end in sight. Moreover, thanks to Iraq and the hurricanes, the fiscal crisis facing the next president has come four years early. Even when Bush has tried to refocus attention elsewhere, voters have answered with a resounding “NO!” For example, a Gallup poll taken in July found 62 percent saying they disapproved of George W. Bush’s Social Security proposals.65 Even the public thinks Bush cannot recover: a Time magazine survey finds 49 percent saying Bush cannot recoup from his low public approval scores; 46 percent believe he can....

Read entire article at The Forum Vol. 3, Issue 4 (ed. Nelson Polsby)

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More Comments:

Safi M. Hodari - 12/31/2008

Kate- you crack me up. Don't tell me; Grey goose got your ton... typing fingers.?
Well... you tried to give a heads up. ;)

Do you think they finally "got it"?

Doc S.

Vernon Clayson - 2/12/2006

Ms. Wittig, what must happen? Jeez, should I circle the date of your post as the first warning that the interest of the American People is endangered by what???????????

Vernon Clayson - 2/12/2006

Ms. Paul, your comment is on target, it all depends on whose ox is being gored. The media wants to shape events but once in a while they get their comeuppance, Dan Rather is a good example, he called the election for Al Gore, early and incorrectly, in 2001, and his resentment spilled over into the next election where he grasped at straws, forgeries, to make a point, which was even dumber than calling the previous election for his choice. His ox was gored, now Dan is the subject of the missing persons programs.

Kathy Wittig - 2/8/2006

I must happen and very soon, for the interest of the Amwerican people.

Lorraine Paul - 2/5/2006

I couldn't agree more! Of course when the questions are formulated by rightwing think-tanks this doesn't happen! All questions are then framed to give an honest and clear result!!

Vernon Clayson - 2/5/2006

This is all well and good but doesn't take into account the influence the media has in the matter of presidential popularity. They poll 1000 persons in a population of nearly 300 million and breathlessly announce that the results are in and are somehow official. It also doesn't take into account that the poll questions are slanted to get the desired results. It also doesn't take into account that these polls are taken daily, if not more often, to fill in space in the news. Their meaning is so watered down only the simple among us are impressed.