What is the relationship between the public’s expectations, the President’s rhetoric, and public approval?

During wartime, it has been observed that the nature of Presidential public approval changes. My analysis reveals similarities in Johnson’s rhetoric towards Vietnam, and George W Bush’s rhetoric on the Iraq war. These similarities reflect a pattern of public approval during a wartime period hinging on the departure of reality from the expectations set by the Presidents rhetoric.

President Bush began his term with a strong approval rating, as is commonplace for Presidents. His approval steadily declined up until 9/11 when his approval immediately shot up to nearly 92% and remained in the 70’s and 80’s for months. Aside from this major event, Bush’s approval rating was tied most closely to the economy, as is typical during a peacetime period. This changes however with the invasion of Iraq. After an initial boost in approval from the invasion Bush saw his approval rating tied to Causalities in Iraq. They key moment which is emblematic of a larger pattern in presidential approval is George Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech. Although he never uttered the words mission accomplished President Bush essentially declared victory and set expectations for the war in Iraq to tamper down. The exact opposite happened as casualties mounted reality departed from the expectations set by the President using Presidencies institutional power of persuasion. If President Bush had leveled with the public and been honest in his approach to the war, his approval may have continued to wane, but to less of a degree. Presidents are constrained by the expectations set by their own rhetorical framing of the conflict. If maneuvered around successfully these expectations can be managed and a President can withstand high casualties while still maintaining a fairly high approval rating.

Method: Analyzing the quantitative data on publicly available approval ratings a comparison is drawn between the administrations of FDR, Johnson, and George Bush. All of these wartime presidents two of whom underestimated and undersold the involvement in their respective regions. That is, FDR leveled with the public about the great loss of casualties which would occur, and the public was aware for many years now of the death tolls impact on other countries. By comparing data on Presidential approval ratings and analyzing the presidents rhetoric with respect to the war effort at the time, a connection is drawn between how a President is able to manage expectations, and approval rating. Literature already establishes that once A president enters a war the nature of their approval changes. However what I propose in specific is that a President can withstand a large increase in causalities as long as they do not downplay the severity that is to come. Of course, this hinges on a Presidents ability to successfully accurately predict what will happen with the war effort and strategically communicate this to the public. Data on approval in conjunction with data on wartime casualties along with analyses of each respective President reveals that a Presidents accuracy and honesty in assessing the future of a wartime effort is paramount in their ascertainment of approval from the American public.

The Literature sticks to four main categories in which presidents are rated with varying labels. For the most part analysis includes the following variables. Economic performance, coalition of minorities, rally effects positive and negative, and a war variable where applicable. In understanding what qualifies as a “rally” event, the event in question must be sharply focused and dramatic . Coalition of minorities refers to the ability of a self-interested group to begin to oppose the president after the beginning months of the presidency(John E Mueller, Presidential Popularity from Truman to Johnson pg 21). The categorization and use of these factors will draw mostly from Mueller’s piece as well as its application in analysing the Bush presidency in the Eichenberg piece. In general Eichenberg synthesizes Muellers analysis and applies to a regression analysis of Bush’s Presidential approval. Eichenberg is often forced to find creative ways to get around the ambiguity of some of the categorzations Mueller lays out. For example it may not be clear what constitutes a “rally around the flag effect”. In order to assess this in some objective matter Eichenberg compiles data on newspapers and what stories were written most about. Of this the ones which had the most media attention he dubs candidates for a rally around the flag dummy variable (War President: The Approval of George W. Bush pg 11). The data is useful in understanding how the major themes layed out by political scientists on approval are applied specifically to this period in American history. The Stimson Erikson piece gives a better understanding of how the “economic slump” variable is to be interpreted and understood in the larger picture of presidential approval. In addition to this there are various new articles which describe events and its impact on bush’s legacy and approval. It gives further context to the American public’s thinking at the time of these events. It’s for example easy to forget that the Iraq war had a nearly 70% approval from the general public at the time of the invasion. The Newport piece gives some contrast to how approval is impacted in a domestic crisis rather than warfare. The data used to generate the charts will be used to compare how casualties impacted the presidencies and approval ratings of both Bush and Johnson. The Daddis piece will be used in conjunction primarily with the Eichenberg piece to draw a connection between the failed use of the rhetorical presidency in both instances, as well as the subsequent dip in approval as casualties increased. The Daddis piece also gives insights into the politics surrounding the debate in Washington over how to treat the messaging of the Vietnam war. It reveals Conversations and information on Jonhson’s thoughts on how to convey Vietnam to Americans.

Vietnam and Iraq

As demonstrated above there is a negative relationship between President Johnson public approval rating. The rhetorical defense of the Vietnam war which the Johnson administration deployed was one of a pre-emptive nature. This is a key similarity it shares with the rational for the Iraq war in many ways. Thus, in order for a war to be justified, fear of the enemies future actions or endeavors must outweigh any concerns about causalities, which we are assuming are the chief concern for citizens in regard to how well a war effort is going. Both Johnson and Bush rhetorically justify in a similar fashion and fail in a similar fashion because they firstly, underestimated the wartime enemy, and secondly, were fundamentally dishonest in their brief to the public. By 1967 the assessment of how “worth it” the endeavor was in Vietnam was looking bleak. There were many news stories reporting that despite claims of progress in Vietnam, the situation was much closer to a stalemate. The strategic situation in Vietnam became even harder to believe when there was a drastic increase in the draft in 1967. Although not as dramatic, this produced what was the equivalent of the departure from expectations which would occur After George Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech.

The relationship between Bush’s approval and casualties is more difficult to see. This is because the spikes in casualties were expected by the public during the initial invasion, but after Bushes Mission accomplished speech on May 1st 2003, Casualty spikes of the same level were not expected later on and were accompanied by a dip in approval ratings. Casualties at the time of the invasion were expected and looked over. As the conflict wayned on it became apparent that the mission accomplished stunt was a departure from reality. Total casualties were far less than other conflicts discussed, the rhetorical handling and communication from the President however was a catastrophic failure.

Korea and other cases

Both Vietnam and Iraq share the circumstances of reality departing from expectations set by rhetoric. Korea and World War II are different entirely in how expectations were managed both due to a difference in rhetorical handling, but also because of a different set of circumstances. There is a reason why The Korean war is commonly referred to as the “forgotten war”, Americans paid little attention to the conflict. Truman’s handling of his feud with General Macarthur and eventual firing gave the impression that Truman was calling the shots as compared to Johnson and Bush whom critics say were influenced too greatly by war-hawks surrounding them. Truman’s repudiation of MacArthur effort to expand the war in Korea in to China was a show of both decisiveness and restraint. Truman was being honest we he told the Public in a Speech he gave in April 1951 when he said “would be wrong—tragically wrong—for us to take the initiative in extending the war… Our aim is to avoid the spread of the conflict.” 

Mounting Korean war casualties had little impact on Truman’s approval alone, one reason may be the threat of Communism was more pronounced a threat in the Truman era than in Johnsons time. Not only was the threat of the wartime endeavor less underestimated in Truman’s instance, but his level of commitment was better communicated to the public, and was in the face of calls for greater aggression by his top general.

FDR’s approval during the time of World War II is more difficult to track because there is not substantial quantitative data on presidential approval at the time. However, using election statistics we can at least assume that FDR’s approval during the Majority of world war II was greater than that of the Johnson administration during the Tet Offensive. A chief difference in WWII was the fact that the war had been already ongoing for years and the public was aware of the scale of the global conflict. Casualties expected by the public in a World War are sure to be of greater proportion than those expected in a conflict with guerillas in southeast Asia. In other words the, the difference in the relationship between casualties and approval can largely be explained by a different set of expectations for what was an “acceptable” death toll in accordance with the alleged cause for the war,. The justifications for WWII was after all in the minds on most Americans far more justified than the conflict in Vietnam would come to be seen as.

So What?

Not every President has been forward with the American people, especially when comes to the topic of foreign policy. History shows that Presidents are rewarded for accurate assessments and good faith efforts to set realistic expectations for wartime casualties, and the extent of the foreign conflict. History will remember Johnson and Bush as Presidents who whether it was out of naivety or sheer dishonesty, failed to level with the American Public on their most pronounced foreign policy objectives. This failure, stands in stark contrast to the communicative abilities of Truman and FDR who both oversaw casualties which were comparable if not larger. A Presidents approval during wartime is determined by casualties in part, but more important it the intrinsic value the public see’s in honesty and strength in the face of adversarial conflict. This can nonetheless prove challenging to do for an acting President, Mission accomplished fits much better on a banner than whatever a more realistic conception of our goals in Iraq would have been at the time.


Mueller, John E. “Presidential Popularity from Truman to Johnson.” The American Political Science Review 64, no. 1 (1970): 18-34. Accessed October 11, 2020. doi:10.2307/1955610.

Eichenberg, Richard C., Richard J. Stoll, and Matthew Lebo. “War President: The Approval Ratings of George W. Bush.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 50, no. 6 (2006): 783-808. Accessed October 11, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27638525.

MacKuen, Michael B., Robert S. Erikson, and James A. Stimson. “Peasants or Bankers? The American Electorate and the U.S. Economy.” The American Political Science Review 86, no. 3 (1992): 597-611. Accessed October 11, 2020. doi:10.2307/1964124

Newport, Frank. “Little Impact of Katrina on Bush’s Overall Job Ratings.” Gallup.com. June 07, 2017. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://news.gallup.com/poll/24283/little-impact-katrina-bushs-overall-job-ratings.aspx.

Daddis, Gregory A. “CHOOSING PROGRESS: EVALUATING THE “SALESMANSHIP” OF THE VIETNAM WAR IN 1967.” In Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure, edited by Blanken Leo J., Rothstein Hy, and Lepore Jason J., by Casey George W., 173-94. Georgetown University Press, 2015. Accessed November 9, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt19qgffn.16.

Data on casualties in chart provided is from https://www.globalsecurity.org/

Data on approval is from www.gallup.com

Written by Jonathan Naness jcnaness@muhlenberg.edu