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January 22, 2009

An Historical Perspective on Presidential Approval and Transfer of Power

Back in 2007, I examined presidential approval ratings during the latter half of the 20th Century to try and gain some historical perspective on the presidency of George W. Bush: a small matter which has been notably lacking in the so-called news analysis we are bombarded with on a daily basis. This constant barrage of fact-free punditry under the guise of news doesn't just distort the facts.

It actively erodes confidence and trust in our public institutions. As I noted back in 2007, we are awash in a carefully cultivated culture of contempt:

...the Bush presidency is awash in a sea of gloomy imagery. Each new day brings a new miserable failure alert: time is running out, the tide has turned, an increasingly embattled president at odds with an ever more impatient nation stubbornly refuses to admit defeat. Instead of the burning bush of prophecy we are given, inexplicably, a rapidly sinking Bush.

Of course with the benefit of hindsight, we now know the Surge was a success and defeat in Iraq was not a foregone conclusion. If we cannot yet claim complete victory, it is equally certain that the merchants of despair were utterly wrong as well. But what of the presidency of George Bush?

How should we evaluate it? The media, once again, would have us do so free of the historical context which lends perspective and understanding to otherwise isolated numbers on charts. Via The Armorer, the Editorial Staff notes the WSJ has resurrected the presidential approval ratings chart we used back in 2007 for our original analysis. He comments:

Being a war President doesn't do you very well, unless you are assasinated at the very beginning. Ending wars helps, though. Being generally upbeat and positive helps, too, looking at Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton. In fact, being genial, generally upbeat, and not having to fight actual hot wars (or ending one, as in Korea) makes up for a lot of sins.

The Editorial Staff tend to agree, though we think it's a bit more complicated than that. We observed in 2007:

there appear to be two striking patterns or models of presidential approval: the two-term expanding peacetime model (Reagan/Clinton in rectangles) and the wartime onset model (Truman, Bush I, Bush II). The first, and Ford and Eisenhower may arguably fall into this category, is characterized by roughly equal or greater than equal increasing over declining approval ratings.

The wartime onset model (and I leave Johnson out because he inherited a war, and thus never experienced that giddy 'surge' in popularity experienced by Presidents who arrogantly rush the nation to war without the prior approval of France and Germany) is characterized by a wild upswing in approval at the onset of military operations, followed by a sharp and unrelenting decline in popular approval.

The third interesting observation is that the tenures of the wartime presidents (Truman, Johnson, Bush I, Bush II) were all characterized by "extremes" of opinion: they swung from highs unattained by peacetime presidents (over the high 70s) to lows never experienced by those who never led the nation during time of war.** It would be interesting to see what Kennedy's track record would have looked like, had he not been assassinated.

But another interesting glimpse into the erosion of presidential power was offered, presciently, during the Clinton administration:

During the past decade of post-Cold War drift, American foreign policy has been assailed by two camps of critics. The first makes ad hominem attacks: America's diplomatic failings reflect a lack of leadership from Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, or congressional Republicans. The second camp is cultural and holds that America is either too isolationist to pursue international goals in a sustained way or too riven by multiculturalism to manage a foreign policy consensus. Both camps miss the point. The central problem of American foreign policy is neither personal nor cultural; it is institutional. Executive power, checked and balanced since the early days of the republic, has been eroded dangerously, to the point where even a skilled president would be hard-pressed to push treaties through the Senate. Indeed, the decline of executive power has proceeded so far that the modern president is more nonexecutive chairperson than CEO -- even though the uncertainties of the post-Cold War world make an agenda-setting chief executive as necessary as ever.

The erosion of presidential power started with changes in the nature of the bully pulpit. After Theodore Roosevelt popularized this phrase at the turn of the last century, technological advance steadily increased the president's power to win popular backing: radio allowed F.D.R. to deliver his fireside chats; network TV let J.F.K. charm the nation. And cheap air transport gave presidents a way to appear before hitherto inaccessible audiences. Between 1945 and 1975, the number of presidential speeches increased nearly fivefold. Moreover, the power of these speeches was enhanced by another technological advance: in 1952 Eisenhower's campaign managers broke new ground when they began using polls to determine which issues most concerned Americans.

Since the 1980s, however, this process has flipped into reverse: technological advances now undermine the bully pulpit rather than amplify it. The rise of cable TV has changed television from a presidential megaphone into a presidential scourge. The three big networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- which once carried all presidential press conferences live, and which reported respectfully on initiatives emanating from the White House, have been displaced by new cable channels that compete for viewers by eschewing such deference. Rather than televise the president, these cable channels churn out irreverent talk shows. The bully pulpit has been drowned out by bullying pundits


We decided to revisit the WSJ's presidential approval ratings analysis, but this time with a slight twist. The results appear below:


This time, the presidents are divided into "peacetime" and "wartime" bins. The only president left out is Richard Nixon. He is an odd hybrid - as the only president to be impeached and resign from office, his approval ratings arguably depart from the normal pattern expected of either a wartime or peacetime president. [Ed. note: thanks to twolaneflash for correcting my sloppy terminology. Nixon resigned after the House Judiciary Committee approved 3 articles of impeachment against him and it became apparent the votes were present to secure a vote for his subsequent impeachment:]

On Friday, August 9, Nixon resigned the presidency and avoided the likely prospect of losing the impeachment vote in the full House and a subsequent trial in the Senate. He thus became the only U.S. President ever to resign. Vice President Gerald R. Ford succeeded him and a month later granted Nixon a full pardon for any crimes he might have committed while President.

Another anomaly: Carter is placed in with the peacetime presidents because we were never formally at war during his tenure; but arguably he could just as well have been placed with the wartime presidents as America suffered terrorist attacks abroad during his term of office that not only fit the textbook definition of acts of war, but severely eroded his popularity (and the public's patience). In many ways the hostage crisis in Iran and Carter's response to it may well have set the stage for our presesnt war on terror. Notably, the shape of his approval ratings over time is markedly similar to that of the wartime presidents. The Iranian hostage crisis lasted longer than the Gulf War:

Jimmy Carter spent his last minutes in office trying to end the 444-day Iran hostage crisis that many say cost him the presidency. He even took a telephone with him to Ronald Reagan's swearing in and was engaged in last-minute talks as the two drove up to the Capitol.

But it was the newly inaugurated President Reagan who made the announcement that afternoon - that the 52 American hostages had been released from Tehran and were coming home.

So the next time you hear W's final approval ratings being cited as evidence that he is the worst president ever, you have some basis for evaluating that claim. As the graph clearly shows, war has exacted a heavy toll on the popularity of every president who has served this nation during a military conflict. As someone who works with metrics and statistics on a daily basis, one of the first things I seek to do is avoid "apples to oranges" comparisons.

In evaluating the approval ratings of George W. Bush, it makes sense to use a relevant sample for comparison: other presidents who have served the nation during military conflicts.

Another meme popular among frustrated conservatives is that Bush is responsible for our defeat in 2008 and the resulting disarray of the Rethuglican party. Not to put too fine a point on it, but an objective examination of the historical record provides no evidence to support the notion that a third term of Republican leadership in the Oval Office was George Bush's to lose:


Click for bigger

A few notes on this graph:

1. The data is comprised of the term lengths of the 20th century presidents, separated out by party (red for Republicans, blue for Democrats). They are in chronological order.

2. The graph is separated into two halves: pre- and post-1950.

This was done for several reasons. First, the latter half of the century is more relevant to today's voters, since few of us recall voting in elections before 1950, much less the political climate back then. There have been a few changes with the times.

Secondly, the rise of TV and mass communications accelerated greatly after 1950.

3. On both halves of the graph (pre- and post-1950) any uninterrupted stretch where one party occupied the Oval Office for MORE than two terms is noted.

The salient observation? Prior to 1950, extended one-party rule was more the norm than the exception.

Since 1950, extended one-party rule has been the exception rather than the norm. In fact, it has happened only once.

But by all means, let us blame Bush for our defeat in 2008. It is always so much easier than looking at facts that inconveniently undermine what we'd like to believe, especially when this involves that rather startling notion that we live under a two party system in which - oddly enough - the party not in power tends to feel bitter, cheated, aggrieved, disaffected and angry.

Hmmm... now how can we make that work to our advantage? :p

Posted by Cassandra at January 22, 2009 07:15 AM

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Nixon impeached? Articles of Impeachment were drawn up, Senate hearings were held, but no vote of impeachment was ever accomplished in the House and no trial was held in the Senate. Nixon resigned. Ford pardoned him. Clinton was impeached, but his misdeeds, according to the Democrat mantra of the time, "did not rise to the level of removing him from office". I have hopes that Obama will win the whole trifecta: crime, impeachment, removal.

Posted by: twolaneflash at January 22, 2009 11:38 AM

You're right. I was careless with my terminology.

I noted that he resigned because I wanted to avoid the impression that Nixon was convicted by Congress, but I should have been more precise.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 22, 2009 12:10 PM

Yeah, but my post was *much* shorter.

;^ )

Posted by: John of Argghhh! at January 22, 2009 12:10 PM

Yeah, but Cassie has *graphs*.

Posted by: BillT at January 22, 2009 02:15 PM

Yeah, the difference between her post and mine, aside from volubility, lies in my lack of copyright violation...

8^ D

Oh, wait, 'round cheer, that's supposed to be:

8^ P

Posted by: John of Argghhh! at January 22, 2009 03:10 PM


Yes, your post was much shorter.

No doubt I should have saved myself the work of constructing two charts, one of which I don't think had anything to do with your post.

I never learn, do I?

Posted by: Cassandra at January 22, 2009 03:22 PM

Given this pattern...does it makes sense, from his perspective, for Obama to 'bring the troops home' from Iraq so early, as opposed to waiting until, oh, say August of 2012? Or is he gambling that he can bring home the Afghanistan forces at that time?

(how about Japan? Germany? South Korea? Serbia?)

Posted by: Falze at January 22, 2009 03:30 PM

Falze - I dont think anyone really cares hugely about the troops in Japan, Germany, South Korea and the Balkans, all places that have fewer troops in them than they did back in the 90's.

Mainly because no one is getting shot or blown up. And they've never really cared about the ones who die in training and accidents. Not in a political sense, however much they may have cared on a personal level. But the press doesn't see those deaths as news, therefore no one knows about them, and therefore no one cares about them - aside from those of us on the inside, dealing with it from several different perspectives (and the families of the dead count as insiders in that formulation).

As demonstrated during the 80's and 90's when we were losing more people to training and other accidents than we've been losing to all causes (including combat) during the 00's.

I think, from his perspective, President Obama is going to feel pressure to at least accelerate, if only in a token sense (and perhaps a greater than token sense) the drawdown from Iraq to prove he's not George Bush, placate his base a safe way, and show the Generals who is in charge.

Afghanistan, to me, at least, the tea leaves are murkier.

Whatever you think of his politics, he's too smart to even think about bringing them all home fast. But that doesn't mean he won't push the envelope - and make it work. Which, is, frankly, a net plus, however damaging it might be to the prospects for replacing him in four years.

Posted by: John of Argghhh! at January 22, 2009 04:59 PM

Cass, do not ever sigh. I love reading your blog for the snarkery, thoroughly researched graphs and Light Minded Content.

Carry on.

Posted by: Cricket at January 23, 2009 08:33 AM

Be thou not distressed, Lady Cricket -- Cassie uses *sigh* in the same context that Doc Lady Sly uses *snicker*.

That way, she doesn't have to be concerned with inadvertently omitting an "n"...

Posted by: BillT at January 23, 2009 09:57 AM

Did I just read Cricket calling the Blog Princess a mental lightweight?

Posted by: John of Argghhh! at January 23, 2009 10:08 AM

Great. Hadda go and draw her attention to it, didn't ya?

Posted by: BillT at January 23, 2009 10:38 AM