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The President and the Public

Theodore Roosevelt changed the public’s perception of the presidency by asserting the centrality of the office in American government. The president is chosen by the whole nation, not just a district or state, and therefore the office of the president is the most important office in the federal government. Roosevelt’s stewardship theory of the presidency claimed that the president has the right to do whatever the nation needs, within the limits of the law.

The President’s Constituents

The president has a number of different constituencies. The most obvious constituency is the citizens of the United States: He or she is the president of all people in the United States, not just those who voted for him or her. But the president also has constituents in the political party, members of the opposing party whose cooperation the president needs, as well as interest groups. The Washington community—a term used to describe the government officials, pundits, and columnists in Washington, D.C.—is an often unwanted constituency but one that has influence because of its impact on public opinion.

Presidential Approval

A presidential approval poll measures the degree to which Americans approve of the president’s job. The president’s popularity affects presidential power because a popular president is much more likely to persuade reluctant members of Congress or the public than an unpopular one. A high approval rating—60 percent or above—makes a president very strong, whereas a weak rating—below 50 percent—weakens a presidency. Presidential approval sometimes changes dramatically during the president’s term.

Example: George H. W. Bush’s approval rating hit extremes that few other presidents have reached within a single term in office (1989–1993). Bush’s approval rating peaked at 89 percent after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He was defeated in his bid for reelection only eighteen months later, however, after his approval rating dropped to 29 percent at the end of July 1992. He left office with an approval rating of 56 percent.

When a president first takes office, he is often given what is called a honeymoon period: For a few months, the public, the media, and members of Congress tend to give the president the benefit of the doubt and treat him well. However, this honeymoon period is usually fairly short and often gives way to opposition and hostility.

The President and the Media

Presidents often use the media to speak to the American people directly in order to generate public support for their policies. Since World War II, presidents have increasingly used the media to gain popularity and leverage in their relationship with Congress. This strategy has been dubbed going public.

Example: At the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003, President George W. Bush and his aides decided to “go public.” Bush made many speeches in support of going to war in Iraq, and he convinced many, many people to support the war. Perhaps as a result, support for Bush surged in the spring of 2003.

Changes in Media Coverage

Reporters covering the president today are very different from their counterparts a few decades ago. Journalists today are much more likely to report anything that the president does, including things that could hurt the president’s image. Many White House correspondents knew, for example, that FDR needed a wheelchair and that John Kennedy cheated on his wife, yet no one reported those facts. It’s hard to imagine something like that happening today because media scrutiny is much more intense.

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