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The Presidential Expectations Gap

Public Attitudes Concerning the Presidency


Richard Waterman, Carol L. Silva and Hank Jenkins-Smith


Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014

Hardcover. viii+208 p. ISBN 978-0472119141. $65.00


Reviewed by Jasper M. Trautsch

Deutsches Historisches Institut / Institut historique allemand, Paris



What Can We Expect from the President of the United States?


The presidential expectations gap hypothesis – the claim that there is an increasing discrepancy between the electorate’s rising demands of the president and the chief executive’s actual power to meet these expectations – has become an influential concept in American political science. Scholars holding this view argue that the public, often as a result of candidates’ sweeping promises during election campaigns, has unrealistic expectations that do not take into account the political and institutional constraints that presidents face. Moreover, the public’s expectations are often contradictory such that even an all-powerful president could never fulfill them all at the same time. As a result, the approval ratings of presidents usually decline once they have taken office and the “honeymoon period” is over; they are less likely to win re-election; and the party not holding the White House frequently wins the mid-term elections. Furthermore, as presidents – often feeling the need to resort to extra-legal means to satisfy the public’s mounting demands – become embroiled in scandals (such as Watergate, the Iran-Contra Affair, or the Lewinsky scandal), the electorate becomes generally disillusioned with the political process.

Surprisingly, despite the popularity of the presidential expectations gap concept, only rarely has it been put to the test. Using data primarily from surveys conducted since 1996, Richard Waterman (Professor of Political Science at the University of Kentucky), Carol L. Silva (Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma), and Hank Jenkins-Smith (Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma) therefore set out to verify whether there is in fact an expectations gap and, if so, what its impact is.

In order to test and empirically measure the gap, the authors operationalized it in various ways. For example, assuming that, if the expectations gap hypothesis was true, incumbents – as the major object of the populace’s expectations – should be held to a higher standard than those who had left office and were no longer in power, they compared the approval ratings of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush with retrospective evaluations of their predecessors. Their 1996 survey indeed demonstrates that Clinton, although he had won the 1992 election against George H. W. Bush, quickly became less popular than his predecessor within just four years. The approval ratings of his successor George W. Bush in turn deteriorated during his second turn, whereas Clinton became increasingly popular once his presidency was over, as a 2007 survey shows.

Another example of how Waterman, Silva, and Jenkins-Smith sought to validate the expectations gap thesis involved an analysis of historical presidential approval ratings, as the expectations gap concept would let one predict that the electorate would, in general, become increasingly disappointed with presidents over the course of their presidency. The authors found out that, with two exceptions, the ratings of all presidents since Harry S. Truman did decline while they were in office.

Yet another way of how Waterman, Silva, and Jenkins-Smith chose to operationalize and test the hypothesis is through an examination of the frame of reference the electorate uses to evaluate presidents, as the authors theorized that the public would tend to compare an existing president to an ideal prototype, leading to disappointment in the incumbent’s performance. Their analysis indeed confirmed this hypothesis: the respondents of surveys conducted between 1996 and 1999 and in 2007 indeed evaluated both Clinton and George W. Bush more critically – in terms of their sound judgment in a crisis, their experience in foreign affairs, high ethical standards, and their ability to work with Congress – than what they considered their hypothetical “model” president (the participants were asked how important these leadership characteristics were for a person to be judged an excellent president and how well the respective incumbent matched their standard of excellence).

In an essayistic case study of the Barack Obama presidency, the authors, moreover, claim that it is not only the public that has unrealistic expectations of the president but also the contenders for the office. As a result, Obama himself, as they argue, became disillusioned with the political process realizing that some of his assumptions about the possibility of initiating change were infeasible.

By providing empirical data for the hypothesis that Americans have a heightened sense of expectation of presidential performance, this book makes an important contribution to the scholarship on the American political system. The authors engage the relevant literature, make straightforward arguments, and approach the topic from various angles without losing sight of the complexity of the issue. For example, they take partisanship into account as an intervening variable in respondents’ assessments of presidents. Their individual chapter-by-chapter analyses of the survey data are also convincing.

While their creativity in looking for ways to turn the expectations gap hypothesis into an empirically usable concept is to be commended, one could ask, however, whether it would not have been more methodologically thorough to make the more painstaking effort of a longitudinal study, i.e. regularly asking people over an extended period of time about what they expect from the president to find evidence whether their expectations are actually rising. At times the operationalizations Waterman, Silva, and Jenkins-Smith utilize beg the question whether their analyses really test the expectations gap hypothesis. For instance, the fact that ex-presidents are retrospectively viewed in a more favorable light, as they are no longer the object of partisan disputes, is not surprising – nor the insight that actual presidents compare badly to ideal prototypes.

Moreover, by only focusing on the public’s expectations, the authors do not pay equal attention to another significant aspect of the presidential expectations gap: presidential performance or the actual power of the presidents to meet the public’s expectations. After all, a gap logically requires two poles. In other words: only when high presidential expectations by the public are not matched by high presidential ability and power will a gap emerge. The fact that politicians make far-reaching promises to the electorate during campaigns which they cannot realize once they are in office is neither a new phenomenon nor confined to America; it rather seems to be a general tendency of democratic systems throughout the world.(1)

To understand why there is a rising gap between the public’s expectations and the government’s performance and consequently a mounting disillusionment with the political system in the United States, it is also important to approach the topic from the opposite perspective: not asking whether the electorate’s expectations are increasing, but whether the actual power of the federal government that they elect is shrinking. Processes of globalization, for example, affect the ability of nationally-elected governments to cope with a nation’s ecological, economic, financial, and political problems, which are often intrinsically connected to developments abroad: climate change and environmental pollution cannot be effectively combated on the national level; global economic downturns as in the wake of the recent financial crisis cannot be fought by one government alone but require international cooperation; companies that operate globally are hard to regulate and control by national authorities; and global labor markets render it increasingly difficult to effectively fight economic inequalities within a national economic system. Possibly, the public’s measurable disaffection with domestic political institutions is attributable to the fact that a rising number of political problems can only be tackled by international institutions on which citizens do not yet have direct influence.

As the authors aptly argue, the public might have unrealistic expectations of the president resulting in an alarming dissatisfaction with the political system. A complete analysis of the expectations gap hypothesis, however, would also have to relate the public’s expectations to the changing political, institutional, financial, and economic circumstances affecting presidential performance. Further research on the phenomenon is thus warranted.


(1) Cf. Matthew Flinders, “Explaining Democratic Disaffection : Closing the Expectations Gap”. Governance 17-1 (2014) : 1-8. Katharine Dommett & Matthew Flinders, “The Politics and Management of Public Expectations : Gaps, Vacuums, Clouding and the 2012 Mayoral Referenda”. British Politics 9-1 (2014) : 29-50.


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