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The Presidential Expectations Gap

Public Attitudes Concerning the Presidency

Prof. Richard Waterman

Publication Year: 2014

For decades, public expectations of U.S. presidents have become increasingly excessive and unreasonable. Despite much anecdotal evidence, few scholars have attempted to test the expectations gap thesis empirically. This is the first systematic study to prove the existence of the expectations gap and to identify the factors that contribute to the public’s disappointment in a given president. Using data from five original surveys, the authors confirm that the expectations gap is manifest in public opinion. It leads to lower approval ratings, lowers the chance that a president will be reelected, and even contributes to the success of the political party that does not hold the White House in congressional midterm elections. This study provides important insights not only on the American presidency and public opinion, but also on citizens’ trust in government.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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Chapter 1: The Role of Public Expectations

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pp. 1-5

In the American political system, presidents deal with a wide variety of difficult issues. Yet as President Kennedy’s response indicates, presidents soon discover that they have only a limited ability to solve many of the nation’s most intractable problems. Put another way, presidents quickly discover that their own expectations of what they can accomplish may very well be excessive and unrealistic. Further complicating matters, the public expects presidential action on a broad range of policy issues and its expectations are often contradictory...

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Chapter 2: Public Expectations in a Historical Perspective

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pp. 6-15

When they discuss the expectations gap presidential scholars generally relate it only to the modern presidency. We tend to ignore a discussion of expectations in the period prior to the modern presidency because the presidential office was then much weaker. It is therefore assumed that expectations were not important. Yet, even at this earlier period in American history, expectations helped to define the power and influence of the American presidency...

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Chapter 3: Comparing Incumbent and Retrospective Evaluations of Presidential Performance

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pp. 16-28

Not only is the president’s job difficult, according to one of our nation’s top presidential experts, George Edwards (1983, 191), “the president’s job is more difficult than [it was] in the past.” Since the birth of the modern presidency the policy demands on the presidency have expanded exponentially, with presidents currently expected to resolve virtually every societal problem including such highly intractable and diverse issues as managing the economy, controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, confronting international terrorists and drug traffickers, reversing the trend toward global climate change, as well as ameliorating the scourges of crime, teenage promiscuity, and the more mundane propensity of American’s to eat, drink, curse, and smoke too much...

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Chapter 4: Analyzing Public Expectations

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pp. 29-50

Thus far we have examined public expectations from a historical perspective and indirectly by comparing retrospective evaluations of past presidents with two incumbent president’s approval ratings. In this chapter we shift the focus to a more direct test of the expectations gap thesis. A direct test is important because, while some scholarly work suggests that an expectations gap exists, research methods to date generally have employed surrogate measures to test the gap thesis. We therefore use the literature on expectations to operationalize and test the gap thesis for two presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Before we do so, however, we first review how scholars conceptualize the expectations gap...

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Chapter 5: Testing the Expectations Gap Thesis: The Presidency of Bill Clinton

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pp. 51-71

An essential attribute of the expectations gap thesis is the idea there is a gap between what we expect our presidents to do and what presidents actually are capable of doing. As we have noted, presidential scholars have hypothesized that this gap is systemic, thus affecting all modern presidents. It is further posited that the expectations gap induces lower approval ratings and a decreased likelihood of reelection success. We also will examine whether the gap has a deleterious impact on the fate of the president’s congressional party in midterm elections. The evidence provided therefore represents a direct test of two basic assumptions of the gap thesis...

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Chapter 6: The Economy, Ethical Standards, and Partisanship

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pp. 72-83

In the previous chapters we examined the expectations gap from a historical perspective, by comparing evaluations of two incumbents with retrospective evaluations of their immediate predecessors, and by using the presidential prototype approach to compare an ideal/excellent president with an incumbent president. In this chapter we approach the expectations gap from yet another direction that is identified in the presidential literature: we test a performance-based model of presidential expectations...

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Chapter 7: Presidential Scandal and the Expectations Gap: Why Did Clinton Survive the Impeachment Crisis?

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pp. 84-103

This is a book on the presidential expectations gap. So why examine the Clinton impeachment case? The primary reason is that another component of the expectations gap thesis is the idea that because the public focuses increased demands on the White House, presidents are forced to push the letter of the law to get things accomplished. This dynamic has resulted in an increasing propensity for congressional investigations of presidential scandal, as well as an increase in congressional investigations of presidential performance and even presidential behavior...

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Chapter 8: George W. Bush: War and the Economy

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pp. 104-119

Unlike Bill Clinton’s presidency, which was mostly identified with domestic policy issues, particularly the economy and the budget deficit, the presidency of George W. Bush was associated with the politics of war. Though Bush had little foreign policy experience or expertise when he entered the presidential office, and though he intended to focus his presidency on such domestic issues as education and tax cuts, the events of September 11, 2001, utterly transformed his presidency...

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Chapter 9: Barack Obama: The Candidate/Incumbent Expectations Gap

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pp. 120-132

As the George H. W. Bush quote suggests, at some point presidents are faced with the realities of tight budgets or some other political reality that they obfuscated during the previous election cycle but must confront head-on at the governing stage. In this chapter we address the idea that presidents must learn to deal with the realities of governance in comparison to the heighted campaign promises that promote excessive and unrealistic public expectations. Consequently, this chapter deals with both public expectations and the unrealistic expectations of an incumbent president...

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Chapter 10: Micro-and Macro-Level Models of the Expectations Gap

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pp. 133-160

In the first nine chapters we have identified the expectations gap problem, defined the concept, and provided multiple means of operationalizing and testing the gap thesis. While this represents an important contribution to the understanding of a mainstay concept of the presidential literature, we still have another important task to perform. Although in the past chapters we provided empirical evidence related to the gap and its effects, we still do not know why the gap exists...

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Chapter 11: The Expectations Gap in a Broader Theoretical Context

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pp. 161-176

For more than half a century presidential scholars of all stripes (including political scientists, historians, and biographers), journalists, pundits, political operatives, and bloggers have discussed the negative ramifications of the presidential expectations gap. As we demonstrate in this book, even presidents and their advisers have considered the double-edged possibilities of a gap. The expectations gap has been treated as a given, subject to rare and inadequate empirical analysis...

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Appendix A: Survey Methodology

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pp. 177-186

We constructed and administered four surveys through the University of New Mexico’s Institute for Public Policy. We conducted polls from January 21 through February 27, 1996, and October 30 through November 18, 1996. The timing of these two surveys was selected so that we could measure public expectations of the incumbent president, Bill Clinton, his main rival (Senator Bob Dole of Kansas), and an ideal president at both the beginning and the end of a presidential election year. A total of 564 adults from the state of New Mexico were interviewed for the first survey, while 624 were interviewed for the second one...

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Appendix B: Measurement of Our Independent Variables

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pp. 187-190

The dependent variables are explained in the text, particularly in chapter 4. While we also discuss the independent variables at various points throughout the book, this appendix provides greater detail on how these questions were framed...


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pp. 191-194


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pp. 195-203


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pp. 204-208

E-ISBN-13: 9780472029716
E-ISBN-10: 0472029711

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2014