Public Support

Civil rights march on Washington, D.C., 1963
Courtesy of National Archives

Presidential power ultimately derives from the people. Getting elected is just the beginning. Only by maintaining public support does an administration sustain its influence. Popular presidents have the ability to promote their policies, pressure members of Congress, and defend against attacks. Conversely, should a president fall sharply in opinion polls, his administration is weakened.

Cartoon of Grover Cleveland fishing for popularity, from the September 1886 issue of Puck.

Gallup poll cartoon
Americans distrust polling. One of the harshest criticisms of a president has been that he is pandering to the polls. Yet those who ignore public sentiment risk the effectiveness of their administrations.

The old system for gauging public opinion relied on informal reports from party activists, the news media, and one's own political instincts. By the 1930s, professional pollsters and, later, focus groups started to replace those methods. More and more, the information gathered is used to demonstrate the popularity of the president or to help package and sell programs to the public and push legislation through Congress.

Courtesy of Gallup Organization
Protest buttons and ribbons
The most essential right of citizens in a free society is the ability to challenge the decisions and actions of their government and to make their opinions known. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to peacefully assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. From local protests to marches on Washington, demonstrations have forced presidents to publicly take stands and clarify positions on issues they often wish to avoid.
Washington, D.C., World Bank protest sign, 2000
Anti-Vietnam War protest sign, c. 1973
Farmers' protest sign, Washington, D.C., 1978