Negative media coverage of economy will trump a president's successes

October 28, 2004

University Park, Pa. -- Success in foreign policy and other political arenas, even when well publicized, will not prevent a drop in the president's approval ratings if the media reports a faltering economy, according to a Penn State political scientist.

"Our findings show that presidents and their spokespersons cannot use rhetoric to consistently deflect public attention from the economy if that rhetoric conflicts with what Americans read in the papers and see on television," said Suzanna DeBoef, associate professor of political science and co-author of the paper, "The Political (and Economic) Origins of Consumer Confidence," in the October issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

DeBoef and co-author Paul M. Kellstedt, assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M, noted that presidents whose administrations, while otherwise successful, are marred by a weak economy cannot use the power of the press to maintain high approval ratings over the long haul. On the other hand, positive news coverage can significantly boost a president's approval ratings. Furthermore, shocks to the economy such as the Enron scandal, provided they are temporary, will cease to influence popular opinion after about four months if the economy is otherwise healthy.

The power of negative reporting about the economy, even if a president's foreign policy is stellar, was demonstrated during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, which saw both the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-91 and the success of Operation Desert Storm in early 1991.

"During the last half of 1990 and the first half of 1991 -- coinciding with the build-up and the execution of the Gulf War -- overall approval ratings for President Bush skyrocketed even while public approval of his economic stewardship began to decline, a disconnection that began as early in 1989 and seemed to coincide with the beginning of the recession," DeBoef said. "Bush's overall approval ratings remained quite solid -- and, during the war, quite spectacular -- but confidence in his management of the economy eroded steadily."

During his one term in office (1989-93), the first President Bush enjoyed presidential approval ratings approaching near 90 percent, but by the end of his term, his economic approval ratings fell to almost 30 percent, she added.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017