You are on page 1of 7

Article: “Where's the Rally?

Approval and Trust of the President,
Cabinet, Congress, and Government Since September 11” Author: Brian J. Gaines Issue: Sep. 2002 Journal: PS: Political Science & Politics

This journal is published by the American Political Science Association. All rights reserved.

APSA is posting this article for public view on its website. APSA journals are fully accessible to APSA members and institutional subscribers. To view the table of contents or abstracts from this or any of APSA’s journals, please go to the website of our publisher Cambridge University Press (http://journals.cambridge.org). This article may only be used for personal, non-commercial, or limited classroom use. For permissions for all other uses of this article should be directed to Cambridge University Press at permissions@cup.org .

or. one before and one after the attacks. Then the terrorists struck. the president was enjoying a rather routine honeymoon. Bush ever received over the same phases of their terms.2). Gallup poll has detected higher approval of his job performance than Clinton or George H. at least against the baseline of recent history. and approval of his job performance has since remained very high. mid-rally assessment of public approval of. the end of American exceptionalism. which provide a simple and flexible model of trend for a univariate time series of irregularly spaced observations.1 and Figure 3.W. more or less. 2001. and George H. Compare Figure 1. George H. Bush over the first 16 months of their terms. more gradual. previous crisisinduced surges in University of Illinois at support for the Urbana-Champaign president? Have Americans been equally generous in their appraisals of other public figures. the normal pattern (Brody 1991.g. Table 3. I attempt an early. but—except for George H. every post-attack PSOnline www. The Gallup polls may. The seizing of the American embassy in Iran.3 Figure 2 suggests that George W. Bush has experienced two fairly simple. In fact. Bush—those presidents served before the one-two punch of Vietnam and Watergate deflated normal presidential approval levels (Brody 1991. Around precisely which institutions or figures have Americans been “rallying?” Is there any reason to believe that the current presidential approval rally is different in kind. the swell in support for George W. editorialists and pundits proclaimed a national loss of innocence. Bush since September 11 has been exceptional in magnitude and duration. Here. and.W. and which will eventually come to seem overblown or simply off the mark. government and political figures. pale in comparison (e.W. Our concern in this symposium is limited to civic engagement in the aftermath of the assaults. and trust in. indeed.Where’s the Rally? Approval and Trust of the President. and the following analyses are more in the spirit of uncovering suggestive clues than offering proof for novel.2 When Gallup’s September 21 and 22 poll found 90% approval for Bush. Other well-known rallies. A surge of 30–40 points is exceptional. such as that produced for Gerald Ford by the Mayaguez incident. Bill Clinton. as the residual category—those who decline to answer either “approve” or “disapprove”—gradually vanished. about 30% of the public shifted from disapproving to approving of Bush’s job Presidential Approval President Bush’s approval ratings catapulted to unprecedented heights after the September attacks. the new globalization of terror. One year later. Bush. but slightly different approval dynamics. The solid lines are lowess regression estimates. broad theories. from Brian J. exaggerate the extent of post-peak slippage in President Bush’s approval. One should not take point estimates too seriously. Gaines. Brody 1991. and John Kennedy. and Government Since September 11* here has been much debate over whether the United States has changed in any lasting and T fundamental manners since September 11. This is. 40–41). shown new trust in government in the abstract? All of these questions seem likely to attract a great deal of careful attention in the near future. Figure 1 shows Gallup’s presidential approval times series for George W. Cabinet. but saw his disapproval rise steadily.apsanet. to Figure 2. the onset of the Gulf War. and other presidents have recorded approval in the vicinity of 80%. and this note will be narrower still in focus.org 531 . and other cataclysmic shifts. which seems to show about a 15-point slide from the maximum having occurred by early May. Immediately following the carnage. which includes data from multiple polling firms. instantly. 36). the current rally is remarkable even when set against the whole history of presidential approval. In his first eight months. with the single exception of an 80% approval mark for the elder Bush in a January 1990 poll. for a very long stretch of time.W. Bush enjoyed an essentially constant 55% approval level (with random fluctuations). moreover. it is still too early to be certain which claims will stand the test of time. and/or less durable surges in approval for Jimmy Carter. Congress. and thus has more than four times as many observations. they declared it a new record high.1 Clearly. Bush. Whereas prior to September. not by merely degree. as is the very slight decay of support over the ensuing eight months. and the Cuban Missile Crisis all produced smaller.

A breakdown of the approval time series by partisan identification would reveal.Figure 1 Gallup Presidential Approval Data. One of the main themes of Brody’s book (as captured by its subtitle) is that public evaluations of the president are mediated by media accounts. qua rally. it seems initially to have been a strikingly good example of an instantaneous. with people somehow through April 2002 overcoming many of the usual obstacles to obtaining political information. but the public reaction was probably too immediate to be understood as originating in changed elite discourse. Bush preceded elite support. but related. we might expect only the most 2002 is still enjoying—historically high levels of approval from attentive Democratic partisans to be shifting back to their more the American people. prima facie. reflect elite opinion. as approval has dipped only My impressionistic sense is that Democratic leaders have experslightly—by around 10 points—while disapproval has risen by imented with pulling almost all punches in discussion of foreign approximately the same amount. While that 30-point gap is impressive. Bush played a unique logic. the immediacy of Bush’s approval surge leaves no doubt that many Americans swung to approval of the president before he had had a chance to react in any substantive way to September’s terrorist incidents. respectively. Then again. but. while tentatively poking at Bush on domestic matters. The September 11 terrorist attacks were probably the most salient news event in decades for Americans. 76%. affairs. In those polls shown in Figure 2 that do report separate results by partisan identification. In that light. My conjecture here is simpler. the dominant understanding of rallies is that they follow from a (temporary) suspension of elite criticism of the president and a concomitant absence of media cues justifying disapproval of presidential performance. as reflected in the media with a small lag. Most Americans did learn about the attacks from the media. First 16 Months rally and improvements in approval levels that stem from policy successes. It seems possible that the movement from disapproval to approval of George W. Independent. the Republican. of course. and 66%. Hence. to be sure. Prior’s contribution to this symposium suggests that Figure 2 knowledge about the war on terrorism has disApproval and Disapproval of George W. and Democratic average support levels in 2002 have been 96%. and few learned about the story days late. That polls taken as early as September 13 showed 78% to 86% approval may also shed some light on the initial source of the pro-Bush opinion swing. In short. Brody takes variations in public responses to seemingly similar international crises as ruling out “any simple explanation of the rally phenomenon” as a “reflexive patriotic response” (62). which. Bush has experienced a sample from both of Clinton’s two series shown in Figure 1. reflexive patriotic response. The present rally may eventually have conformed to Brody’s model. in turn. insofar as I too suspect that the present case is in some ways anomalous. one could try to separate rewards for the rapid victory over the Taliban from the rally. uniform tone. note that 66% is close to the peak approval for the whole national performance. as conveyed by the media. after coverage had developed a distinctive. President Bush has enjoyed—and as of early May Following Zaller (1999). poses that one not lose sight of the distinction between a pure 532 PS September 2002 . In the ensuing months. then. taken as a whole. that such decay in approval as has occurred has been disproportionately concentrated among Democrats. which is certainly how it was portrayed in news items about the late-September run on flags at Wal Marts across the nation. 48) pronatural position of disapproval of the president’s performance. kind of second honeymoon. Brody (1991.

That said. while the media moved on. So Americans may have instinctively rallied around their legislature briefly. Democrats in Congress Other Political Figures Further clues about how to understand American public opinion since September 11 come from the approval series for other prominent political actors. One final comparison that illustrates the impressive duration of this rally is the time series on media coverage of September 11’s aftermath.org A few more clues lie in public attitudes toward prominent Cabinet figures. this presidential edge had shrunk. on average. Gallup recorded 84% approval in a poll taken over the period October 11–14. though not smooth. and the Los Angeles Times over the next month detected about 70% approval. In any case. Over the second Clinton term. Here the question is not framed in terms of approval. likewise. the news had clearly shifted to other topics (<www.apsanet. so it might be fair to conclude that some Americans (maybe 10%) continue to “rally around the Hill. According to about 40 polls measuring congressional approval. the public stuck with approval of the president. IPSOS-Reid. but approval of public figures is in no sense automatic at the moment. The Tyndall Report has compiled data on total network newscast coverage of eight distinct stories directly related to the terrorist attacks and America’s response. retrieved from National Journal’s online poll track) on public attitudes towards a selection of figures over the rally months. only fair or poor?” Support for President Bush is roughly what one might have expected from his approval numbers: 533 . seems to have shot upwards over late 2001. Yet. reinforcing the impression that the nation is in the midst of an unusually “populist” rally. That time series shows a quite drastic. Donald Rumsfeld. Figure 3 Ratings of President Bush. Before September 11. I cannot really separate rival accounts for the overall durability of Bush’s support levels. as most of the congressional surge quickly came undone. but pollsters have asked. this rally did not match its executive counterpart in persistence: the average approval level for Congress in 14 polls in 2002 has been only 56%. Congress’s approval level also shot up immediately after the attacks. over the last eight months. and without comprehensive data on media tone over the last eight months. Congressional job approval has attracted less interest than presidential over the years.But a parting of ways between Democrats and Republicans in the mass public could occur with or without elite and media intervention. falloff in total coverage. The Tyndall data suggest that this inertia might be hard to explain as originating in media. Gallup. “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?” (or slight variations thereof) frequently enough to provide some sense for the long-term dynamics of public approval of the legislature. However. pretty good. so that by early 2002. Figure 3 shows Harris data (again. recent polls show higher congressional approval than did polls from 1998 to mid-2001.” PSOnline www. for instance. the approval level for Congress was typically 10–20 points below that of the president. presidential approval has been abnormally high and yet largely immune to normal deterioration patterns. and then leveled off between 30% and 40% in the new year. as Bush was leading Congress only slightly in most polls. perhaps out of a sense that his policies were succeeding or that the nation remained in peril. but quality of job performance: “How would you rate the job the following officials are doing—excellent.com>). and the lowest readings have been below 50%. Disapproval. and polls taken for CBS/New York Times.tyndallreport. with movements in the two series being weakly correlated.

55% “strongly approved” and 27% “approved somewhat” of Bush’s job performance. Issues. again. So. his staff erected a backdrop that happened to screen out a nude statue of Justice. for instance. as. For present purposes.Standing Guard. Yet. In short. a number of pollsters have been asking respondents to discriminate between approval of overall job performance and approval of “handling of the economy. and by March only 50% were rating them “pretty good” or better. Bottom: (AP Photo/Doug Mills). and Trust although “excellent” ratings have declined. Ashcroft and the press corps face one another across a wide cultural divide. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was omitted from the September survey.” Top: (AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert). post-attack high. Gaines notes that “It would seem that Americans are less appreciative of the Congress than of President Bush and his Cabinet.4 Late night comedians (including pseudo news anchor John Stewart of The Daily Show) followed suit. Rallies. I detect some signs that the American public’s rallying behind President Bush and his cabinet is populist.” and “poor” remains a fringe response.” but that his command of the war in Afghanistan later produced glowing coverage. But their series looks more like the bottom panel than either of the top two. no other senior Bush Administration figure seems to have faced as much media hostility. in December. enjoyed a sensational September report card. and a flurry of stories in January played up his alleged prudery when. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis used his final column to equate Ashcroft and Osama Bin-Laden. right) and Senate minority leader Trent Lott (top. without a hint of irony. It would seem that Americans are less appreciative of the Congress than of President Bush or his Cabinet. eventually. It will be interesting. Approving respondents were asked PS September 2002 534 .. While approval marks for Congress were strong immediately following September 11. A more interesting and suggestive case is Attorney General John Ashcroft. Colin Powell’s ratings (not shown) are more impressive still.” and so on. to Daschle’s 45%). and thus missed a chance to record an immediate.g. Ashcroft seems to be the preferred whipping boy in the media. Ostrom and Smith 1993). Along with the standard approval item.” or divorced from policy considerations. what is intriguing about differences in issue-specific approval ratings is that they work against an understanding of the rally as being purely “knee-jerk. then. as the Republicans in Congress have done slightly better than their Democratic colleagues over this period. Reactions seem to vary when questions are framed by issue..g. in fact slightly better than those of the president. enthusiasm for Congress looks to have been short lived. Even more memorably. left) have seen their numbers dip. In an early January Public Opinion Strategies poll.” “foreign policy. The Democrats in Congress. roughly 60% rating his performance “pretty good” or better. predictably. My impressionist sense about Rumsfeld is that he initially received poor press. approval for whom was impervious to bad-news corrections (e. There seems to be a small partisan effect. In the absence of quality data on media portrayals of Rumsfeld and his colleagues. even if there has been something of a suspension of criticism of Bush Administration officials since September 11. in the sense that it seems at least partially independent of media cues. Reagan’s approval seems to have done notwithstanding the conventional wisdom that he was a “teflon” president. With the possible exception of Tom Ridge. to test whether George W. his ratings in the Harris polls of January and March were better than those of the Democrats in Congress or Tom Daschle (e. one cannot easily discriminate between an explanation for their rallies that stresses spillover from their boss from a rival account emphasizing media and/or elite friendliness. and. emphasizing his age and the sense that he was one of “yesterday’s men. Senate majority leader Thomas Daschle (top. Again. Bush has typically (but not uniformly) scored better for management of foreign policy and the war on terrorism than for his handling of the economy. But his October to March values look very much like those of Bush. Bush’s approval levels have responded to economic trends over this period of elevated support. by contrast. but then saw more and more ratings of “only fair” and even 12% choosing “poor” by March. at a press conference. there has been only a small movement from “pretty good” or “excellent” to “only fair.

his general personal strength and sense of leadership since Sept. as respondents favored “providing needed “most of the time” to “How much of the time do you think you can trust the services” over “holding down the size of governgovernment in Washington to do what is right—just about always. “When it in recent years makes that question all the more intriguing. PSOnline www. Since the question was not open-ended. 70% made those choices when the leadA caveat about the 64% final observation is that it came in a in was. 11. government elicited ment is usually doing what is right will persist cannot easily be higher levels of trust with respect to its ability to deal with projected at this point. then. albeit in a much muted form. and maybe even Last. optimistic been moving back towards the late-1970s nadir in general trust. I suspect bit as striking in magnitude as was the presidential approval that it is still too early to tell. to examine whether the swing of public mood is. the present administration’s response dealing with the economic downturn.…” That gap is quite puzzling if respondents a surge in approval at that point. a few survey items have tried to tap into the American public’s sense of trust in government and institutions. a surge every tends a turnaround in cynicism about government. But to the extent that support does stem from the success of the war and Bush’s inspiring tone of leadership. how much of the time do you steadily rising since a local minimum in 1994.” insofar as it seems to encompass the Cabinet.apsanet. Figure 4 with the choices: “his policies have resulted in no Trust in Government*. deeper than mere approval of the policies and personalities in the current administration. and it would almost certainly ment to prevent terrorists from killing thousands only months be imprudent to declare that the bright side of September’s before. The responses may reflect prospective evaluations and tragic loss of lives is that they helped usher in a new era of a realistic sense that governmental priorities had shifted totrust in government amongst the broader public. and none of the options allowed respondents to locate the change in the American people rather than the president. most of the time. and even Congress seemed to be enjoying war on terrorism. it would seem there is no reason to believe there will necessarily be any long-term traces of the rally. ABC news found no post-attack change of priori*The series shows the percentage of respondents answering “just about always” or ties. The contrast between ABC and the NES national security than with social issues. Whether this new willingness to express faith that governin 2000 to 66% in 2002. wards security in a major way. these figures do not necessarily allow one to conclude that the current climate of support is necessarily personalized. responses. given the manifest failure of governticularly prone to future revision. and that the public has in very recent years some of the time?” only 38% chose the first two. On the most intriguing question. Hence. comes to handling social issues like the economy. of ABC reading as the final observation. what about the most general “trust in government” Congress.” Only 6% selected the first or fourth options. since the biennial NES results suggest that trust has been Social Security and education. most of the time or only quickly fizzled. Here. his response to the events of Sept.org 535 . However. it might be that the “trust” terminology here is misleading. health care. Or. That Republicans express more confidence than DemocThe American public continues to rally around the president rats on both items (48% to 32% on social issues and 80% to eight months after a few tragically efficient terrorists shocked 62% on security) probably demonstrates that Bush’s shadow the nation. although I both the National Election Study (NES) and the ABC have not presented any evidence that I would regard as conNews/Washington Post series for trust levels. in some respects.to identify the reason for Bush’s high ratings. 1958–2001 further terrorist attacks. and somewhat deep. while 44% cited his personal strength and leadership. with a post-9/11 clusive on that front. 11 and the direction of the war in Afghanistan. On the other hand. ment” by identical 63%–36% margins in July 2001 or only some of the time?” and January 2002. The rally has been long-lived. and that what these responses best demonstrate is Americans’ willingness to exConclusion press solidarity with their government in times and realms of crisis. There are hints that item for which we have a long time series? Figure 4 shows this has been an unusually unmediated response. Asked. But trust in the government’s ability to solve (general) problems rose from 51% rally. and 34% said the rally was based on the direction of the war. falls across the vaguely specified “government. Curiously. this figure seems parreason retrospectively. “When it comes to handling national security and the late September poll. is yet another whether the public’s newly high approval for politicians porspike in public sentiment following the attacks. or. while ABC’s trust the government in Washington to do what is right? annual surveys seemed to show that the mid-1990s trust rally Would you say just about always.

. “Error Correction. Assessing the President: The Media. and 95% confidence intervals generally span an interval of plus or minus three or four points. 536 PS September 2002 . spy plane. I aggregated responses for those polls that asked respondents to express degrees of approval or disapproval. King. 1988. it seems likely that more people than ever have been exposed to these data. and Richard A. 1. has nearly matched Lewis for strident rhetoric directed at the Attorney General. most of which had about 1. “The Myth of Massive Media Impact Revived: New Support for a Discredited Idea.000 respondents. all of the usual caveats about survey items apply. Elite Opinion. Diana C.” I included every national-sample poll. and Lewis was not a lone critic. Stanford. The figure shows the proportion of all respondents answering “approve” to the question: “Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Sniderman. “the longest and most valuable in public opinion history” (King and Ragsdale 1988. This was not Lewis’s only assault on Ashcroft. and Lyn Ragsdale. following its collision with a Chinese fighter jet. and Renée M. Ann Arbor: Univeristy of Michigan Press.S.” New York Times. Bush in April 2001. Since September 11. Jr. CA: Stanford University Press. Richard A. Hail And Farewell. John. Smith. Paul M. 278). A). In particular. Zaller. Of course. Mutz. like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft” (“Abroad at Home. 1999. the figure shows only point estimates. Attitude Persistence. ed. The Elusive Executive: Discovering Statistical Patterns in the Presidency. and Executive Rewards and Punishments: A Behavioral Theory of Presidential Approval. Note too that there is also little sign of any substantial rally around George W. Gary.Notes *Thanks to Scott Althaus and Peter Nardulli for helpful suggestions. since the variation in responses appeared to be slight. 15 December 2001. References Brody. during the standoff with China over a downed U.” Political Analysis 4:127–83. and it has certainly been much studied. from the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Al Hunt. Bush is handling his job as president?” The Gallup presidentialapproval time series has been called. Brody. For instance. Charles W. The data plotted in Figure 2 were obtained from National Journal’s online “poll track. 1991. 1993. and I also include some polls that sampled registered voters or likely voters rather than adults. 3. Ostrom. Washington. 2. and Public Support.” In Political Persuasion and Attitude Change. 4. 17–78. “…certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right. DC: CQ Press. sec.