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Mass Politics Dictates the Power of the Presidency

November 28, 1986|THEODORE J. LOWI | Theodore J. Lowi, the John L. Senior professor of American institutions at Cornell University, is the author of "The Personal President--Power Invested, Promise Unfulfilled" (Cornell Press, 1985).

Ronald Reagan is running true to the presidential pattern. Despite his vaunted luck, he has in the end not been able to escape the force that shaped his predecessors and sealed their fate. That force is not the economy, Soviet aggression or state-sponsored terrorism but the mass politics surrounding the presidency itself.

As the presidency has grown in power during the past generation, its popular base has shifted from party democracy to mass democracy. This is a source of strength and legitimacy--but also one of danger. Each President, especially Reagan, has been able to draw on the mass base to maintain national leadership, but it has made the President vulnerable to mass expectations. Mass democracy has obliterated the necessary distinction between domestic politics and foreign policy, making the presidency and diplomacy natural enemies.

The modern President speaks to his constituency through the mass media, and receives his responses largely through the polls. For better or for worse, random-sample survey polling is the latest addition to democracy's institutions in America. Presidential power rests heavily, albeit not entirely, on the results of a key question asked on virtually every national survey each three to four weeks: "Do you approve or disapprove of the way the President is doing his job?" Presidential ratings on this question are a vote of confidence, a plebiscite on presidential performance.

The presidential pattern that Reagan has tried almost successfully to resist is the downward tendency of presidential plebiscites. For each President the pattern begins with an extremely high approval rating of nearly 70%, the honeymoon period, then drops to 40% or below. For about 30 months this pattern was exactly the same for Reagan as for his five immediate predecessors. In fact, at each point in the profile Reagan ran a few points below Jimmy Carter. Then mysteriously, in the late summer of 1983, Reagan's performance ratings began to creep upward until they returned to the honeymoon period's high levels. The following points may help clarify what is happening now and, more important, perhaps reveal something about the presidency's special problems.

The profile of presidential plebiscites is not a smooth but a jagged one. The overall downward tendency for each President is punctuated by an occasional blip upward--sometimes a very significant blip. Until late 1983 this blip represented merely a temporary respite from the otherwise downward drift, which ended in presidential impotence and departure from office accompanied by varying degrees of disgrace.

A single force explains all the blips, and that force is international events associated with the President--referred to by some observers as "a rallying effect." For example, the largest upward blips in the history of this plebiscite were the 1961 Bay of Pigs incident (presidential initiative, bad news), the Iran hostage-taking of 1979 (no initiative, bad news), the 1962 Cuba missile crisis and the 1986 bombing of Libya (initiatives, good news). With each of these, and with many other international events, there was a strong rallying effect to the President if he took the trouble to dramatize the event and associate himself strongly with it. There is a rallying effect even where a majority of the respondents disapprove of the action itself.

This pattern's meaning should be more than a little ominous. There is a highly sensitive and predictable relationship between the President and the public, and it gives the President strong incentives to conduct hit-and-run, go-it-alone, seat-of-the-pants foreign policy--action without policy. Conversely, this pattern of incentives tends to discourage sustained relationships, negotiation, serious consultation with allies--in short, diplomacy itself.

Presidents are under pressure constantly to produce or to create the appearance of producing. The public is in effect constantly asking, "What have you done for us lately?" The ratings decline because every domestic decision that a President makes is divisive.

The only exception is the international event, but as soon as those events are over, the general downward tendency resumes. If the international event is sustained and becomes an actual issue, it becomes domesticated and thus contributes to the general downward trend. Either way, soon the President needs another international-relations fix.

But if the same force shapes all modern Presidents, why did Reagan's performance profile go up for three years while other Presidents were lucky to get a month of temporary respite? Personal attractiveness cannot be discounted, but there is more.

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