George’s Jimmy Problem

July 6, 2001

Editor’s Note The following column was first published July 2, 1978. Different era, different president. But today George Bush faces the same problem Jimmy Carter did back then: declining poll ratings. In an effort to put the latest poll numbers in perspective, we decided to take you back in time. So sit back and relax. It’s 1978 again. A president with little experience is discovering that leading is difficult. And he’s receiving all kinds of advice. Presidential scholar Thomas Cronin tells us that when a president’s poll ratings start to drop, his advisors always give the same advice: “Don’t just stand there. Do something!”

For Jimmy Carter the advice has come sooner than for most presidents. Over the past quarter-century, looking at those presidents who first reached the White House through an election, the record shows that after 15 months in office the popularity of Eisenhower had held its own, Kennedy gained five points, Nixon lost three points—Carter has dropped 27 percent.

The first “do something” advice a president receives is to escalate the rhetoric. Verbally attack somebody. Congress is usually a good target, especially if it is controlled by the opposition party. Communists also have been good for some mileage. Or attack inflation, with emphasis on greedy union leaders if the president is a conservative, or greedy corporate executives if the president is a liberal. This is what William Janeaway calls the “politics of blamesmanship.”

In Carter’s case, he has also chosen to attack doctors, lawyers, and government employees. This is hardly surprising. Presidents have a way of reverting to techniques that worked for them in the past. When Nixon got in trouble he always tried to recreate the Checker’s speech. Now Carter has gone back to the type of populist appeals that served him well during his presidential campaign.

A president in trouble increases his public relations staff. He hires a Jeb Magruder or a Gerald Rafshoon. The “basic” problem, his advisers tell him, is that he has not properly “packaged” his programs. Reporters are now offered briefings by top administration officials. The president gives interviews to friendly or powerful journalists. He increases his use of television to appeal directly to the people, rather than rely on the White House press corps to deliver his message.

A president is advised to find excuses for foreign and domestic travel. Summit meetings are particularly tempting. The meaningless Glassboro Summit of 1967 raised Lyndon Johnson’s popularity by 11 points. Trips to exotic places are encouraged. After Gerald Ford overused this ploy, Barry Goldwater noted, “I think it would be a good thing for the country if President Ford put Air Force One in the hangar for at least eight months.”

A third way to create an aura of motion is for presidents to appoint commissions, task forces, advisory councils, and White House Conferences. Carter is presently putting together an advisory council to advise on a White House Conference on the Family.

All these “do-somethings” supposedly have two things in common: They do not cost much and they do not commit a president to a specific course of action. But are they really so harmless? Task forces and White House conferences ultimately make recommendations. And, more often than not, their proposals will be unacceptable to the President. So he shelves them, thus heightening the public’s level of frustration. The President pays a high price for the time he buys.

Nor is the rhetoric without cost. President Carter says lawyers encourage “legal featherbedding” and doctors “have been the major obstacle to progress in our country in having a better health care system.” Yet Carter proposes no “anti-legal-featherbedding” program, and we are still waiting for his health care proposals. He says the federal bureaucracy “is almost completely unmanageable,” but he is now the chief manager of that bureaucracy, no longer an outsider seeking our permission to set the house in order. The separation between presidential words and deeds widens.

The next “do-something” advice involves real or threatened U.S. intervention abroad. At least one influential congressman, Assistant Majority Leader John Brademas, thinks “Carter’s attack on Soviet and Cuban activities in Africa might be an attempt to appear decisive in order to reverse his decline in the polls.” If so, says Brademas, “That’s a very dangerous game to play.” (This view need not imply that Carter’s statements are inaccurate. They can be factually correct and still be an overreaction prompted by his problems at home.)

Foreign crises, whether manufactured or not, are historically restorative for a president’s image. Hugh Sidey, Time magazine’s experienced president-watcher, writes that last fall National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told some congressional aides that “it might be good for Carter if he were to have a Mayaquez—recalling the ship seized by the Cambodians that allowed Ford to send in the Marines.

Even if Carter does not use foreign events for domestic purposes, the fact is that when presidents’ popularity ratings fall they tend to turn to the “tough” advocates among their advisers—the ones with proposals to do something?whether a Brzezinski or a Chuck Colson.

Some presidents’ unpopularity may be well deserved. But it is not always because of the things they fail to do. History, unfortunately, rarely rewards the president who knows when to sit tight. Civics books give little credit to John Adams for not going to war with France. Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, will be remembered for “making the world safe for democracy.” While doing something may be imperative, the pressures to act often mean that alternatives are not carefully weighed. Then, too, there are times when it would be reassuring to think that presidents have some advisers who are prepared to say, “Mr. President, don’t just do something. Stand there!”