Farewell to "President Knows Best"

The Watergate hotel and condominium complex, June 17, 2002. Hyungwon Kang / Reuters

For many years, public attitudes toward foreign policy leadership in the United States could be summed up as "President knows best." Virtually throughout the Vietnam War, up to its very end, the public gave the President - whether Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon - the benefit of the doubt. A President, any President, was presumed to possess vital information unavailable to others, and therefore to be in the best position to judge what actions were in the nation's interest. Several years ago I calculated a pre-Watergate, 50 percent "automatic support" factor for presidential decisions in foreign policy. Analyzing a number of public opinion polls taken before and after presidential decisions in foreign policy, I calculated that the President could count on adding up to 50 percent of the electorate to his support column once he had made a decision, almost regardless of the policy initiative in question. So untroubled was public confidence in executive legitimacy in foreign affairs that people simply assumed the President must have access to knowledge and wisdom denied to ordinary citizens.

In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, these "old rules" of presidential latitude largely collapsed, victims of abuses under the so-called imperial presidency. Although it is difficult to calculate the precise shrinkage of automatic public support since the end of the Vietnam War, my impression is that it has dwindled to less than half its previous 50 percent margin, and in some instances may have disappeared altogether. Increasingly, the President may find himself having to justify his initiatives to a critical, reluctant public, with few citizens going along just because the President is presumed to know best. Under the conditions that now prevail, not only has automatic support for presidential policymaking dwindled, but public opinion data have indicated that the American people are eager to have more say - both directly and through their surrogates in Congress - in the formation of foreign policy.

Vietnam and Watergate were pivotal events in spurring the American public to withdraw automatic support for

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