Reagan’s mythical popularity: for Bush, riding Ron’s coattails may be like hanging onto the emperor’s new clothes

Elliott King

Reagan’s Mythical Popularity

FOR SIX YEARS, President Reagan floated in a lofty cloud of public trust,” a New York Times editorial claimed just last summer. And for years, leading journalists have been telling us that we like and trust Ronald Reagan. But we may have been misled. The fact is that Ronald Reagan did worse in the polls in his first two years in office than any other newly elected postwar President. In 1981, when Reagan was dubbed the Great Communicator and politicians bent over backwards in fear of his vaunted popular appeal, his standing in the polls was lower than Jimmy Carter’s at the same point in his administration.

This is not to deny that Reagan rose in the polls later — by 1984, he did. It is not to deny that his fabulous re-election took place (although a buoyant economy may have been a more important factor than personal popularity). Nor do we deny Reagan’s evident personal charm. Nevertheless, from 1981 to 1983, the polls did not find Reagan a popular President.

The figures are startling. Even in his first few months in office, when Presidents normally enjoy a “honeymoon,” Reagan was not especially popular. After one month, his 55 percent rating trailed Carter’s 71 percent; after two months his 60 percent rating trailed Carter’s 72 percent. At the end of one year in office, Reagan’s 47 percent job approval rating trailed every other postwar President except Gerald Ford. After two years, Reagan’s rating was lower than every President back to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Why, then, do so many of us recall Reagan as a President whose popularity was — until Irangate — unsurpassed? Why have so many people remained blissfully ignorant of these facts? Because journalists missed the story, and the public took for fact what was only fiction.

The fiction was created in part by statements of Reagan’s popularity that ignored the polls. In March of 1981, for example, James Reston reported in The New York Times that even Democratic leaders in Congress “concede that the President has public opinion on his side.” This was no doubt an accurate report of Congressional sentiment, but in the very same day’s New York Times, a small story at the bottom of page 22 reported the latest poll results: “President Reagan’s handling of his job after eight weeks in office wins less approval from the public than any newly elected President in 28 years, according to the Gallup poll.”

In May of 1981, Newsweek reported that Reagan’s popularity ratings in some surveys “are the highest in polling history.” That was quite simply false. The only evidence cited was a Robert Teeter poll question that did not refer directly to Reagan at all. The reporters simply borrowed the conventional wisdom — but it happened to be wildly inaccurate.

By the fall of 1981, The New York Times reported that “President Reagan’s once solid grip on public support appears to be loosening somewhat….” This was a perfectly good report on a new New York Times/CBS News poll — except for that phrase about Reagan’s “once solid grip on public support.” The only job approval ratings during Reagan’s first year that were any higher than Carter’s came right after the assassination attempt in March 1981. Otherwise, Reagan had no “solid grip” on public opinion.

The press gave Reagan high marks for personality despite disapproval of his policies — but failed to compare him with other Presidents. For example, the Washington Post’s White House correspondent, Lou Cannon, noted in January 1982 that “Though Reagan’s approval rating has dropped notably in every major public opinion survey, the President remains far more popular than his economic programs.” Similarly, Time reported that Reagan’s standing was as low as Carter’s at a comparable point in his term, but added “as a man Reagan is still liked by the voters.”

Such reports were accurate but misleading because they did not mention that Presidents are better liked than their policies. In a May 1982 Gallup poll, which compared personality approval (rather than job approval) at roughly equivalent points in their terms, Reagan scored a 69 percent approval rating. Carter’s score was 72 percent; Ford’s 69; and Nixon’s 78. Compared with these Presidents’, then, Reagan’s popularity was low, not high.

Why did the press get the story of Reagan’s popularity so wrong? The answer has nothing to do with a “bias” toward Republicans. There was no intentional distortion at all. The distortion was, in our view, the product of a surprisingly insular Washington establishment that confirms its judgments by talking to itself, and that has a rather smug sense that, commanding the political heights as it does, it can see further than other observers. But in the case of Reagan’s popularity, these blind spots helped produce distortion.

What is true is that Reagan showed considerable skill as a communicator in his affable one-to-one interactions with the Washington political and media establishment. U.S. News & World Report, in March of 1981, stated that even though they did not share his conservative policies, a large number of reporters in the White House press corps liked Reagan. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, liked Reagan too. Without meaning to, Washington insiders may have projected their friendly feelings toward Reagan onto the general public.

Journalists may also have been misled by Reagan’s mobilization of an affluent and politically effective right wing in American politics. The New Right made its views known to Congress by writing letters and sending telegrams, and its spokesmen began to be quoted regularly in the news media. The whole array of key officials the press spoke to shifted to the right. The Congress and the press both may have mistaken an articulate minority’s support for Reagan for general public approval.

The polls, of course, are not the last word on what the American people think. But with all their limitations, they are the first word. It seems, in retrospect, a serious error for the nation’s press to have ignored the poll results or to have tried to explain them away.

The view from Washington, after all, does not always accurately reflect the perceptions of the nation.

COPYRIGHT 1988 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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