Americans lower expectations, yet long for outstanding president
Washington — Perceptions of the US presidency are continuing to shift: * The American people, tempering post-Vietnam and Watergate reservations about an "imperial presidency," are willing to grant more power to their nation's leader.
* Yet, at the same time, they have begun to adopt more "realistic," or lowered, expectations as to what their chief executives can accomplish.
* After watching two presidents -- Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter -- deal with family life stresses in public view, Americans are more tolerant of the private behavior of the White House occupant.
* But contradicting these less-idealized views of the men who occupy the White House are a strong longing for an exceptional leader and a continued high regard for the office of president itself.
This is the context of the 1980 presidental election -- the public's view of the presidency -- as described by White House scholars here this week for the annual American Political Science Association (APSA) convention. Recent poll findings substantiate these assessments.
"The public wants to resist a conclusion that problems are beyond solution," says Stephen J. Wayne, a member of the APSA's presidency study group.
"Watergate and Vietnam have receded somewhat, and people are not fearing concentrated power. The more educated the public, the greater has been the perception that strong leadership would be dangerous. But even among the educated there now is a strong desire for White House leadership."
In 1976 when Jimmy Carter first sought the White House, 49 percent of the public thought strong leadership was needed, but almost as many -- 44 percent -- thought such leadership might be dangerous, according to Gallup poll soundings at the time.
When Mr. Carter announced for his second term last fall, a special Gallup survey on "perceptions of the presidency" found a 2-to-1 edge -- 63 percent to 30 percent -- for those who favored strong leadership over those who thought such leadership might be dangerous. (The more recent survey was designed by Mr. Wayne and the Gallup Organization, and was sponsored by WHYY-TV of Philadelphia.)
"In the short run, the cynicism from Vietnam and Watergate was focused on people -- the individual leaders," Wayne says.
"Now there is less of a feeling that individuals are at fault, but that [the institution of] government is not up to the job. Realism has been thrust at us on the basis of the last four years -- by a Southern knight on a white horse having had to back off on promises made to us four years ago."
Recent polls show the public evenly divided on whether the nation's chief problems are solvable. A CBS/New York Times survey this June, for example, asked whether an effective president could control inflation, or whether the task was beyond any president's control. Forty-six percent said an effective president could control inflation, 45 percent said he could not.
"Going into the 1980 election, Americans are showing a desire for strong performance, tinged by the realism of lowered expectations," Wayne says. "Most of the time we compare a president to an ideal. But on election day we compare him with someone else. We're not asking what kind of job Carter's been doing. We project ahead to what kind of president the candidates would make. With Carter, that's predictable. With [Ronald] Reagan, it's not."
A recent CBS/New York Times poll indicated the public thinks weakness itself might be dangerous. By 2 to 1 -- 57 percent to 27 percent -- the public thought a "too weak" president would "be more likely to get us into a war" than a president who was "too aggressive."
The lessons of the 1960s and '70s have not been forgotten. "High ethical standards, integrity, candor, honesty, empathy, and compassion are still considered necessary attributes," Wayne says.
But for this election, a more forceful, decisive, confidence- inspiring president is wanted. The public feels "strong leadership is more desirable than it is dangerous," he says.
How US public views presidential conduct Activity Strong objection Marijuana use 70 percent Pre-dinner cocktail 14 percent Telling ethnic or racial joke in private 43 percent Not belonging to a church 38 percent Using tranquilizers occasionally 36 percent Using profane language in private 33 percent Going to a psychiatrist 30 percent Wearing blue jeans in Oval Office 21 percent Being divorced 17 percent
Presidents people would like to see in White House now John Kennedy 37 percent Franklin Roosevelt 16 percent Harry Truman 13 percent Dwight Eisenhower 6 percent Abraham Lincoln 5 percent Gerald Ford 4 percent Richard Nixon 3 percent Theodore Roosevelt 2 percent Jimmy Carter 2 percent Lyndon Johnson 1 percent Others 2 percent total Don't know 11 percent (Percentages do not equal 100 because of rounding.) Source: the Gallup Organization
Asked what leadership qualities the presidents showed, the public described JFK as a "strong leader" with "concern for people" and "confidence of people." FDR was remembered for "good policies and programs," ability to "handle economic problems" and as "a strong leader." Truman was seen as "forceful, forthright." And Eisenhower rated high for "confidence of the people," a "strong leader," and "forceful."