Out of Touch: The Presidency and Public Opinion

Presidential approval ratings appear on the evening news every time they are announced. They also are required reading for the president's staff. As a result, modern presidents operate under conditions similar to a perpetual reelection campaign. With constant attention to approval ratings and other indicators of public opinion, why do so many presidents lose favor by the time their terms end? Why are they so often unable to address and reverse their slippage in the polls? Out of Touch: The Presidency and Public Opinion compares the changes in the ways the Truman, Johnson, and Carter administrations looked at and understood public opinion as their popularity declined. Moving beyond the idiosyncracies of individual presidents through comparative archival research, Michael Towle suggests that administrations behave in ways analogous to the staffs of winning and losing candidates. They self-congratulate during popular times and engage in rationalization and cognitive dissonance during unpopular times. As a result, they are more open to public opinion when they are popular and more dismissive of it when they are unpopular. For the three cases observed, growing out of touch did not cause declining public support, but rather declining support led to the phenomenon of growing out of touch. Relying on extensive use of material from presidential archives, Towle examines how these administrations altered their interpretation of public opinion and how their motivations to consider public opinion changed over their terms. He concludes that the modern presidential need for public support interferes with the ability of administrations to be responsive to public opinion. Those who study the presidency or public opinion will appreciate both the methods and the findings of this timely analysis of how presidents grow out of touch.