Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald R. Ford and Presidential Approval

President Gerald R. Ford died last night. Today's initial stories have stressed his role in restoring the country after Watergate, and have emphasized that he was a decent man. They also dwell on his pardon of President Nixon. I thought it might be worthwhile to review President Ford's approval ratings as an alternative way of recalling his presidency. While less easy to judge "good" and "bad", the data are also less sentimental about his time in office.

President Ford assumed the Presidency on August 9, 1974. Replacing the disgraced Richard Nixon, Ford received an initial 71% approval rating in the Gallup poll. The honeymoon was short lived, however. Ford pardoned Nixon on September 8, 1974. The subsequent Gallup poll, taken 9/27-30/74 found his approval fallen to only 50%. While he climbed back to 54% just before the 1974 midterm election, he fell to 47% immediately after the election, in which the Republicans lost 49 seats in the House. He spent almost all of the rest of his presidency below 50% approval.

Ford was plagued by a bad economy, and his "Whip Inflation Now" (WIN) campaign proved a rhetorical as well as policy disaster during the fall and winter of 1974-75.

The spring of 1975 brought foreign policy reversals. The fall of Saigon was the final act of the Vietnam war, with the evacuation of the U.S. embassy providing a visual metaphor for U.S. failure. A month later Cambodia seized the merchant ship Mayaguez. Ford sent marines to rescue the crew, which succeeded but at the cost of some 41 U.S. lives. The immediate aftermath of his decisive, if costly, action was a distinct "bump" in the polls to over 50% approval, but this proved temporary with approval falling back to around 45%.

Ford was the target of two assassination attempts in September 1975, the first by Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a member of the Charles Manson family and the second by Sara Jane Moore. Fromme's gun failed to fire, but Moore got off one shot which missed the President. It is amazing that these two attempts on his life did next to nothing to raise President Ford's approval ratings which jumped at most 2 percentage points in the aftermath, and immediate subsided again.

Ford's approval ratings remained near 45% throughout the summer and fall of 1975. His campaign for the Republican nomination in 1976 raised his approval ratings, but only marginally. Initially Ford did quite well, but Ronald Reagan closed with a series of primary victories and nearly denied Ford the nomination. During this period Ford's approval initially rose to as high as 50% but sank under the Reagan assault back to 45% in June, after the last primary.

Following its then standard practice, Gallup did not ask presidential approval during the rest of the summer or during the fall campaign, so we don't know how the convention or the fall campaign and debates affected Ford's approval rating. However, in December 10-13, 1976, following his defeat, the public looked back on his presidency with somewhat more approval, registering a final 53% approval rating.

In retrospect, President Ford presided over a difficult period in both economic and international arenas. His decision to pardon President Nixon clearly cost him substantial support and has lived on to be the single most debated decision of his presidency. As a weak president facing an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, it is perhaps not surprising that few of his initiatives were well received by Congress. The economic dilemmas he faced were substantially the same as those that damaged the subsequent Carter presidency. These may well have been beyond the power of any president to "cure". The Ford approval record shows that after the pardon, and the fall midterms, the public approval of President Ford gradually improved from the lows of late 1974 and early 1975, but never sustained majority approval after that. Only in retrospect, both in late 1976 and perhaps today, is the judgment on balance more positive than negative.

I'll take a look later today at the Nixon pardon in more detail.