Presidential Approval & Congressional Productivity
Presidential approval ratings are an important measurement for determining how effective the nation’s leader is in appealing to public interest. Measuring presidential approval is beneficial in understanding the public’s perception of the president’s actions. In most cases, presidential approval ratings fall soon after being elected. Other than Reagan and Clinton, the last 13 modern presidents have experienced a decline in popularity. Presidential approval can also be referred to as political capital, or the influence and leverage a president has over the public. Considering that political capital tends to decline over a presidential term, various theories have developed in attempt to understand the causes of this loss of political capital. Poor Economic activity, presidential scandals, executive orders, and government distrust could all explain the significant drop in approval ratings after presidents take office.
One reason that presidential approval may decrease in the first months after a new president takes office could be overall government distrust based on unproductiveness that is blamed on the President for not being able to get his cabinet and Congress up and running. Government distrust can be defined as public cynicism towards those in Washington. Congress being unproductive can lead to low approval ratings because the President is usually expected recommend legislation, lead his party, bargain with Congress, and use his power to inform the public about important issues. If the President cannot stimulate Congress or he cannot get his agenda passed, his approval ratings are likely to drop since he is leaving unfulfilled promises. Unproductivity is based on how ineffective the President is in working with Congress and delivering on his campaign promises. Presidents must reside over the members of the government, and if the President is unable to enact any policies promised or if Congress is stagnant, the blame will likely be placed on the President. This is likely due to the nature of the Presidential office: he is responsible for the direction of the government, and is the salient policy coordinator of the United States, in the sense that he is the focal and prominent leader. The inability to push policy likely creates government distrust among the public, leading to a decrease in political capital. If a President cannot fulfill his expectations, it will likely be displayed in Congress not passing his agenda, potentially leading to a loss in political approval.
In establishing a benchmark for measuring this hypothesis, looking at the first 100 days of a new presidential term could reveal how this decrease in presidential approval and political capital may occur. While the “first 100 days” is a symbolic marker, using it as an index to understand the decline in political capital following a newly elected president can highlight how factors like government distrust and unproductivity can lead to a decline in popularity. Measures enacted within the first 100 days can be seen as a sign of the productivity of the government, and whether the president can facilitate change or production in Congress. Reagan, an anomaly, reached across the aisle for his tax reform bill, a sign that the newly elected President was willing to compromise to enact the policies he promised the American people.
George H.W. Bush experienced a decline in approval, which using this hypothesis could be the result of the Senate refusing his defense secretary nominee. Barack Obama’s first 100 days included getting his economic stimulus package passed, but without the support from Republicans; his promise of getting Guantanamo Bay closed was also left unfulfilled during this time. This inability to make compromises became a key part of Obama’s terms and resulted in a decreased approval rating; Congress halted some of the policies he was hoping to enact. Finally, Trump’s first 100 days were marred by unfulfilled promises on tax and healthcare reform that were unable to be repealed or were rejected by Congress. Bush Sr., Obama, and Trump all experienced substantial blows to their approval ratings during this period, with about a 5% decrease in approval for each of them. While approval ratings fluctuated, Bush Sr., and Obama ended up with a lower approval rating than when they started their terms as President.
In examining this data, the unproductivity of the government during the first few months conflicts with public expectations that Presidents will enact new measures promised on the campaign with ease and quickness. This lack of efficiency leads to public distrust in how effective the President will be in working with Congress and delivering on his campaign promises. This translates over a president’s term, because if they cannot be effective at the beginning of their term, it becomes harder to compromise with Congress and pass campaign promises after the initial popularity enjoyed by newly elected presidents. Considering the President is the salient leader of the nation, his shortcomings in achieving policy are blamed on him, including a lack of cooperation in Congress.
Another explanation for this decline in political capital over time could be presidential scandal that overshadows policy during the course of a presidential term. This could lead to lower approval ratings over time, because scandal is bad press for the president, leading to decreased approval. If the president cannot get control on the scandal, public approval will inevitably decrease since he will be seen as having a lack of credibility. For example, George W. Bush’s delayed response to Katrina and the declining credibility of WMDs in Iraq led to a massive decline in approval ratings even after his record 9/11 approval ratings. Obama’s controversies like his inability to close Guantanamo, along with the torture occurring there also caused a drop in his approval ratings. Donald Trump’s scandals have caused his low approval ratings to drop even further; the travel ban and the delayed response to Hurricane Maria have kept him from even reaching 50% approval.
This relates to the hypothesis that presidential approval rates decrease because of unproductivity in government, as both are potential causes for this decrease in approval rating. Both are reasonable hypotheses, although there are some significant flaws in believing that scandal is the cause for presidential approval to decrease. The first major flaw is that Reagan had his approval rates increase at the end of his term, even though he was embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal. The other major flaw is that Bill Clinton also saw in increase in popularity at the end of his term, even though the Lewinsky scandal made his approval drop considerably.
In looking at productivity in government as a cause for presidential approval ratings decreasing, the Pew Research Center has gathered information about congressional productivity; when analyzing the average numbers of the most recent presidents, Obama and Clinton’s Congress passed fewer laws when compared to Congresses under Republican Presidents. However, a closer look explains that under Republican Presidents, Congress enacts more ceremonial laws rather than substantial laws on average. This information can explain presidential approval rates, because less effective Congresses can be blamed on presidential inability to reach compromises with Congress. For example, Obama’s Congress on average enacted fewer laws than the other presidents, and thus his approval rating went down. Congressional productivity is more of a likely candidate for explaining political approval because even political scandals of the highest offense might cause dips in ratings but presidents will usually recover. However, when a President is ineffective in facilitating new policy measures or furthering his agenda in Congress, he will likely been seen in the public eye as being unwilling to compromise or unsuccessful.
In order to test whether this hypothesis could be the cause for presidential approval ratings decreasing over a term, an examination of Congressional productivity would need to be carried out. Additionally, there must be a poll asking whether the public believes “The President is responsible for the productivity of his Congress”. The same people who are used to measure presidential approval should take this poll. Using these measures, and examining the results of the poll, we can analyze whether the public agrees or disagrees that the President is accountable for congressional efficiency. The criterion for this hypothesis to pass is whether there is a significant amount of the public that believes presidential success is reliant on congressional productivity. This phenomenon must also be able to be applied to all the presidents, or at least the modern ones that have had approval rating polls. In times of policies being enacted and bills passed, presidential approval should be rising, and should be falling when policymaking is stagnant. The criterion for this hypothesis to be false is if a majority of the public believes that the President does not have a significant role in congressional efficiency. If the majority of polled people say “no” that the President does not have substantial responsibility for the effectiveness of his Congress, the hypothesis fails, because they are the ones rating the president.
- DeSilver, D. (2017, August 29). 115th Congress more productive so far than any since 2007. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/29/115th-congress-productivity/
- Gallup, Inc. (n.d.). Presidential Job Approval Center. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://news.gallup.com/interactives/185273/r.aspx
- McCarthy, T. (2017, April 23). 100 days: How Donald Trump compares with last five presidents. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/apr/23/100-days-how-trump-compares-to-last-five-presidents
- Ponder, D.E. (2018, January 19). The President’s Clout. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://stanfordpress.typepad.com/blog/2018/01/the-presidents-clout.html
- Walsh, K.T. (2015, August 28). The Undoing of George W. Bush. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2015/08/28/hurricane-katrina-was-the-beginning-of-the-end-for-george-w-bush