Destined to Disappoint?

Drawing on a new database consisting of more than 70 chief executives from 12 democratic countries, I compared the trajectories of presidential and prime ministerial approval ratings over the past several decades. The data show that approval ratings fall faster and/or lower than in some countries than in others — but why?

I found support for a theory known in the retrospective voting literature as the “Clarity of Responsibility Hypothesis.” The upshot is that political systems with more veto players (ie, more checks and balances) tend to obscure accountability for government performance and ultimately insulate chief executives from blame. For instance, American presidents can usually credibly deflect some criticism by pointing fingers at Congress, the courts, the state governments, and/or independent bureaucratic agencies when things go awry.

Importantly, these findings run counter to an alternative theory often invoked in the the American media and in academic scholarship — namely, that highly constrained executives (such as presidents) are destined to disappoint us because they don’t have enough power to follow through on their promises. To the contrary, the data suggest that, at least in the short run, people are more approving of leaders with less power.

Patrick Kennedy

Stanford University

About Patrick Kennedy

I am a student at Stanford University, where my research interests include studies of the presidency, bureaucracy, and political parties.
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