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The polls: cabinet member and presidential approval.

The choosing of ministers is a matter of no little importance for a prince; and their worth depends on the sagacity of the prince himself.

--Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (quoted in Keohane 2005)

To what extent are performance evaluations of the president and of key subordinates related? Despite vast literatures that comment both on the growth of the administrative presidency and on the determinants and dynamics of presidential approval, empirical studies of the relationship between presidential approval and approval of other key executive branch officials are surprisingly scarce. Recent studies (Panagopoulos 2006) seek to fill this void, and this article aims to proceed in a similar vein.

Links between presidential and cabinet-level approval can have important behavioral consequences. We may expect, for example, that presidents, as rational actors, may act to maximize their own popularity by replacing unpopular cabinet members. Conversely, presidents lacking in approval may seek to boost their own popularity by tapping popular subordinates for key administrative posts. These arguments are reasonable if a clear and direct relationship between cabinet member performance ratings and presidential approval exists.

Machiavelli suggests in The Prince that such a connection may exist: "The first opinion that is formed of a ruler's intelligence is based on the quality of the men he has around him" (quoted in Keohane 2003). In a recent essay on leadership traits, Nannerl Keohane similarly argues that "subordinates who are both competent and loyal reflect well on the leader because observers assume that the leader knows how to judge their competence and acts so as to deserve their loyalty" (Keohane 2005). Yet there is no scholarly consensus about such a direct link. In his seminal work on the presidency, Presidential Power, Neustadt (1980) suggests presidents determine their reputations alone. "The professional reputation of a President in Washington is made or altered by the man himself," Neustadt argues. "No one can guard it for him; no one saves him from himself" (1980, 60). Neustadt goes on to argue: "In a government where Secretaries of the Treasury may go astray at press conferences, where Secretaries of Defense may choose the poorest time to make announcements, where Presidents may not be briefed on legislative drafts--and ours is such a Government no matter who is President--the fact that his own conduct will decide what others think of him is precious for the man inside the White House" (1980, 61).

Is the president, in fact, so insulated politically from the actions of his subordinates? Recent studies suggest this is empirically plausible. In a study that examined the relationship between President George W. Bush's approval ratings and those of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Panagopoulos 2006), I found no relationship between the two. My 2006 study suggests presidents and senior-level advisors derive levels of job approval independently. Although I observed similarities in overall patterns of opinions, causal relationships between presidential approval and assessments of Rumsfeld's job performance were not detected (Panagopoulos 2006).

Lacking evidence of such a direct link, it is not clear that presidents stand to benefit much from dismissing cabinet secretaries, even if they are unpopular. An alternative possibility is that presidents will not mind unpopular subordinates, as their lack of popularity may deflect criticism away from the president and onto the subordinate, distancing the president from direct fallout. In both of these scenarios, however, unpopular subordinates are not, at a minimum, adversely affecting public evaluations of presidential performance. Under such circumstances subordinates are expected to survive, whereas a president may have incentives to dismiss unpopular administration officials whose poor approval ratings hurt the president's directly. A growing literature reflects on conditions under which principals (prime ministers, presidents) may sack agents (cabinet members) (Palmer 1995), and this study aims to present an examination of the U.S. case by examining presidential approval and approval ratings for the president's secretary of state during the presidency of George W. Bush.

As chief diplomat for presidential administrations, secretaries of state are central, high-profile members of the cabinet. The events following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that ensued, have heightened the profile of the secretary of state and sensitized Americans to issues of diplomatic significance, arguably catapulting Secretary Colin Powell and, subsequently, Secretary Condoleezza Rice, into the national spotlight. After all, it fell upon Secretary Powell to make the case for the invasion of Iraq to members of the Security Council at the United Nations in February 2003, a presentation that received widespread national media coverage. This attention has enabled Americans to monitor and assess their performance as secretary of state. This article investigates the public's evaluations of the secretary of state's job performance over time. It seeks to explain the patterns in opinion that are observed. More generally, this study assesses the degree to which the public's evaluations of key cabinet members, such as the secretary of state, impact the public evaluations of the president and vice versa.

Public Opinion and Secretaries of State

The American public's attitudes about secretaries of state are routinely assessed by polling organizations. This article examines the dynamics of public opinion toward secretaries of state in the Bush administrations between October 2001 and December 2005 (no data are available for the Bush administration prior to October 2001). (1) Quarterly data on secretary of state job approval ratings are displayed in Figure 1. The data presented reveal variation in job approval between 2001 and 2005 and also show that the public's evaluation of the performance of secretaries of state declined steadily during this period. Job approval ratings, which exceeded 90 percent in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, have hovered around 72 percent in the four most recent quarters included in the analysis. Approval ratings have ranged from a minimum of 70 percent to a maximum of 95 percent over this time period, and the average quarterly job approval rating has been 83.1 percent. Regressing approval ratings on time and a constant, the data indicate job approval for Bush's secretaries of state has declined by almost 6 percentage points every year between 2001 and 2005 (ordinary least squares [OLS] regression coefficient = -1.44; standard error = .13; p < .01; R-squared = .88; N = 17). The empirical evidence confirms the American public's confidence in the ability of secretaries of state to handle the duties of the office has deteriorated significantly in recent years.


During this time period, President Bush was served by two secretaries of state, General Colin Powell and former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. An examination of the data presented in Figure 1 reveals Secretary Powell's job approval ratings were higher on average than Secretary Rice's; the mean level of approval for Powell was 86.6 percent (N = 13), compared to 71.8 percent (N = 4) for Rice. Both Powell's and Rice's approval ratings show signs of deterioration over the duration of their respective tenures as State Department leaders.

Presidential and Secretary of State Approval

Given the public's weakening assessments of presidential performance over this period, many analysts suggested the president's popular secretaries of state were an asset for the administration. This was especially true during the tenure of Secretary Powell, who was perceived as pragmatic, effective, and moderate and who consistently emerged as the most popular political figure in the nation in opinion surveys early during President Bush's administration (Burns 2002). To what extent does public sentiment about top diplomats' job performance impact assessments of presidential job performance? To determine whether public evaluations of the president and his State Department secretary are interdependent or independent, I have assembled quarterly approval measures for President Bush for the same period spanning 2001 to 2003. (2) Presidential approval was determined using data collected by the Gallup organization.

In addition to quarterly job approval ratings for secretary of state, Figure 1 displays job approval ratings for President Bush for the corresponding quarterly periods between 2001 and 2005. The data show that the public's approval of secretary of state job performance has consistently exceeded the president's job approval for most of this period.

Figure 1 also suggests a close association between the approval measures for the two political actors over this period. An analysis of the data reveals a high instantaneous (bivariate) correlation between the two series (Pearson's R correlation coefficient = 0.86; p < .01). This initial evidence suggests a strong interdependent relationship between secretary of state job approval and President Bush's performance evaluations.

Correlation does not necessarily signify causation, however, and the relationship we observe may not be causal. Moreover, causality, if it exists, can flow in either direction. In other words, President Bush's job approval rating may influence assessments of the secretary of state or vice versa. To investigate these possibilities and to determine causality, I use Granger (1969) causality tests. Granger causality tests whether lagged information on a variable Y provides any statistically significant information about a variable X in the presence of lagged X. If not, then Y does not Granger-cause X. I estimate regressions with one lag to determine whether secretary of state approval Granger-causes Bush approval and vice versa. Given that approval is measured quarterly, I did not extend the analysis beyond one lag.

Table 1 presents the results of the causality tests. The findings indicate no causal relationship between secretary of state approval and presidential approval. In both equations, only the lagged dependent variable influences the dependent variable and is statistically significant at conventional levels. The inclusion of lagged secretary of state approval does not help to predict Bush approval, for instance, and lagged Bush approval is similarly unrelated to secretary of state approval ratings. In other words, secretary of state job approval appears to be independently derived from President Bush's approval, and President Bush's approval is not affected directly by secretary of state approval ratings. The results of this analysis suggest each of these two political actors derive their job approval measures independently.

Explaining Secretary of State Approval

The task remains to explain the variation we observe in approval ratings for secretaries of state over this period. What forces influence the public's assessment of secretary of state job performance? Following Burden and Mughan (1999) and Panagopoulos (2006), I establish three general categories of explanatory variables: general political attitudes, economic variables, and patterns of media coverage. Details on operationalization appear in the Appendix.

Scholars have demonstrated that media coverage influences presidential approval (Burden and Mughan 1999; Ragsdale 1997). I expect that the impact of media coverage, both quantity and tone, extends to the secretary of state. I consider two measures of media coverage: newspaper stories and network television stories. My measure of the amount of newspaper coverage is the quarterly count of stories that explicitly mention the secretary of state that appeared in three national newspapers over the period of this study. (3) To measure the amount of media coverage of the secretary of state on network television, I measure the total number of stories that explicitly mention the secretary of state that appeared on the three networks (ABC, CBS, or NBC) or on CNN.

Figure 2 displays the quarterly counts of each of the two categories of media coverage. The data presented in Figure 2 show that the number of newspaper stories that explicitly mention the secretary of state ranged from a low of 88 to a high of 677 during the period of the study. An analysis of the data shows that newspaper coverage of the chief diplomat increased consistently over this period, by an average of 22 stories per quarter. The total number of stories on network television that mention the secretary of state ranged from a quarterly low of 269 to a high of 1,686, but no discernible trend in the amount of network television coverage can be detected. One clearly notices the spike in the total number of stories about Powell that follows his presentation to the United Nations Security Council during the first quarter of 2003.


The second set of explanatory variables is economic. I consider two measures of macroeconomic performance: quarterly change in unemployment and inflation. Economic performance has been shown to influence presidential evaluations, and it is conceivable that economic indicators, viewed through the prism of war and diplomacy, may be conflated with evaluations about diplomatic performance and spill over to affect approval ratings for the secretary of state.

The main attitudinal variable in the analysis is macropartisanship. MacKuen, Erikson, and Stimson (1989) have demonstrated that partisan identification can be dynamic and can affect--and be affected by--changes in the political surroundings. Following Burden and Mughan (1999, 243) it is measured as the proportion of partisan (Republican) identifiers, and it is included to take account of long-standing partisan predispositions in the electorate that may influence secretary of state approval.

Variables to capture the effect of each of these factors in explaining performance evaluations of the secretary of state are included in a multivariate model I estimate below. In addition, I include two additional dummy variables which I expect to be relevant as controls in the empirical analysis. One variable captures the effect of the Iraq conflict, coded 1 if the Iraqi invasion was ongoing during the quarter in the analysis and 0 otherwise. I include a second dummy variable coded 1 if the secretary of state was Condoleezza Rice and 0 for quarters during the tenure of Secretary Powell.

Table 2 presents the descriptive statistics on the range of variables included in the analysis that follows.

To estimate the linear model while correcting for serial correlation, I use the Prais-Winsten regression technique. The results of the estimation are presented in Table 3. The findings indicate that the secretary of state's job performance evaluations are not influenced by the economic or attitudinal variables, sets of indicators routinely shown to affect presidential approval. Only media coverage influences the public's assessment of the secretary of state's job performance. Interestingly, the results suggest newspaper coverage and network television coverage exert opposite effects: newspaper coverage bolsters approval while network television coverage depresses approval. Additional research would be required to discern whether the nature of coverage across media is qualitatively different, but such an exercise is beyond the scope of this study. I speculate, however, that the difference in media effects I observe may be partly driven by the characteristics of coverage in the two media. Scholars have claimed that television coverage focuses heavily and increasingly on controversy and conflict and, to a lesser extent, on substance. Newspaper coverage, by contrast, may focus more on substantive matters and less on contentiousness. If these characterizations are accurate, this may help us to understand why television coverage may damage perceptions of Secretary of State performance while newspaper coverage strengthens these assessments. The results also show that overall levels of approval are comparatively lower during Rice's tenure at the helm of the State Department (compared to Powell) and that approval is lower during the period of the Iraqi invasion.


The results of this analysis suggest that secretary of state job approval ratings are independent of President Bush's performance evaluations and vice versa. Secretary of state job approval is driven by media coverage and not by the forces of macropartisanship and national economic performance.

On a more general note, the results of these analyses suggest that Americans are quite sophisticated with respect to ascribing accountability for government performance to specific political actors. Americans appear to hold the secretary of state responsible for matters within his or her purview or domain, but not necessarily beyond that. The condition of the economy, for example, does not appear to affect Americans' assessments of the performance of the secretary of state. Additional research may reveal similar patterns for other members of a president's cabinet, lending additional support for the notion that Americans attribute responsibility for specific failures or accomplishments within specific policy domains to the appropriate executive branch official.


Secretary of state approval. Job approval ratings for secretary of state were collected from nationally representative opinion surveys conducted between October 1, 2001 and December 31, 2005. Survey organizations included: Gallup/CNN/USA Today, Fox News/Opinion Dynamics, Los Angeles Times, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Quinnipiac University Poll, Time/SRBI, and Time/CNN/Harris. Details are available upon request. In most surveys, the wording for the job approval question was consistently: "Do you approve or disapprove of the way [Colin Powell/Condoleezza Rice] is handling [his/her] job as Secretary of State?" Responses other than "approve" and "disapprove" were excluded before computing overall percentages. The measure of "relative approval" is akin to Stimson's (1976) indicator. Data are aggregated quarterly.

Bush approval. Job approval data for President Bush are computed in the same manner as approval for secretary of state (aggregated quarterly) as indicators of "relative approval" in order to be comparable. Data are compiled from surveys conducted by the Gallup organization. Question wording is: "Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Bush is handling his job as President?"

Economic variables: Unemployment/inflation. Data for these variables were obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Measures represent quarterly change in overall levels of unemployment and inflation during the period of the study.

Macropartisanship. Proportion of all party identifiers in CBS News/New York Times polls or Gallup surveys who are Republican: % Republican/(% Republican + % Democrat). Independents were excluded.

Media coverage (newspaper). The total number of stories (aggregated quarterly) that mention Secretary Powell (2001-2004) or Secretary Rice (2005) that appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, or Washington Post. These data were acquired from Lexis/ Nexis.

Media coverage (television). The total number of stories (aggregated quarterly) that mention Secretary Powell (2001-2004) or Secretary Rice (2005) that appeared on network news transmissions on ABC, CBS, NBC, or CNN. These data were acquired from news transcripts available from Lexis/Nexis.

Iraq War. Dummy variable indicating the U.S. invasion of Iraq was ongoing (coded 1, 0 otherwise).

Condoleezza Rice. Dummy variable indicating the secretary of state was Rice (coded 1, 0 otherwise).


Burden, Barry C., and Anthony Mughan. 1999. Public opinion and Hillary Clinton. Public Opinion Quarterly 63: 237-50.

Burns, Jim. 2002. Powell's popularity tops even Bush, poll finds. September 30. Available from Accessed March 20, 2006.

Granger, C. W. J. 1969. Investigating causal relations by econometric methods and cross-spectral methods. Econometrica 34: 424-38.

Keohane, Nannerl. 2005. On leadership. Perspectives on Politics 3: 705-22.

MacKuen, Michael, Robert S. Erikson, and James A. Stimson. 1989. Macropartisanship. American Political Science Review 83:1125-42.

Neustadt, Richard. 1980. Presidential power, 2d ed. New York: Wiley.

Palmer, Matthew. 1995. Toward an economics of comparative political organization: Examining ministerial responsibility. Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization 11: 164-88.

Panagopoulos, Costas. 2006. Public opinion and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Presidential Studies Quarterly 36:117-26.

Ragsdale, Lyn. 1997. Disconnected politics: Public opinion and presidents. In Understanding public opinion, edited by Barbara Norrander and Clyde Wilcox. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.

Stimson, James A. 1976. Public support for American presidents: A cyclical model. Public Opinion Quarterly 40: 1-21.

(1.) No single time series is available for this analysis. I have pooled twenty-four nationally representative surveys that asked respondents whether or not they approve of Colin Powell's/Condoleezza Rice's handling of his/her job as secretary of state. Full descriptions of the samples, dates, and survey organizations appear in the Appendix. Data presented in Figure 1 represent quarterly aggregations of "relative approval" (see Stimson 1976 and Burden and Mughan 1999 for a discussion of this operationalization). Approval is measured as percent approve/(percent approve + percent disapprove). In three cases, job approval data were unavailable (1st quarter 2004, 3d quarter 2004, and 3d quarter 2005). In cases where Powell's or Rice's approval data were missing for a particular quarter (at time t), the value was imputed with the mean of the observations at t - 1 and t + 1 (see Burden and Mughan 1999). When the approval question is asked multiple times within a single quarter, the observations are averaged to create quarterly observations.

(2.) Presidential job approval data are determined exactly as Powell's and Rice's job approval ratings are, thereby making these two measures comparable over the complete time period. There were no missing data for presidential approval.

(3.) The newspapers are the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post.


Fordham University

Costas Panagopoulos is a visiting assistant professor of political science and director of the Elections and Campaign Management Program at Fordham University.
Granger Causality Tests

 of State Presidential
 Approval Approval

Secretary of state [approval.sub.t-1] .52 * (.28) .31 (.23)
Presidential [approval.sub.t-1] .22 .74 *** (.12)
Constant 25.19 (16.02) -12.56 (13.23)
Number of cases 16 16
Adjusted R-squared .74 .94

OLS regression. Standard errors are in parentheses.
* p < .10; ** p < .05; *** p <.01.

Variables and Descriptive Statistics

Variable Mean SD Min. Max.

Secretary of state approval 83.12 7.74 70 95
Bush approval 61.53 14.03 42 90
Unemployment (change) 0.01 0.24 -0.2 0.7
Inflation (change) 0.06 0.58 -0.8 1.1
Macropartisanship 47.35 1.87 44 52
Newspaper stories 231 184 88 677
Network television stories 620 331 269 1,686
Iraq War 0.59 0.51 0 1
Secretary of State Rice 0.24 0.44 0 1

Variable Range

Secretary of state approval [0,100]
Bush approval [0,100]
Unemployment (change) (-[infinity], +[infinity])
Inflation (change) (-[infinity], +[infinity])
Macropartisanship [0,100]
Newspaper stories [0, +[infinity])
Network television stories [0, +[infinity])
Iraq War [0, 1]
Secretary of State Rice [0, 1]

N = 17 for all variables. See Appendix for operationalizations.

Determinants of Opinion Toward Secretary of State
(Prais-Winsten Regression)

Dependent Variable: Secretary
of State Approval

Independent Variables Coefficient

Newspaper coverage .021 * (.012)
Television coverage -.007 ** (.003)
Iraq War -7.337 *** (1.827)
Condoleezza Rice -19.390 *** (5.179)
Unemployment (change) 3.911 (3.989)
Inflation (change) -.906 (1.291)
Macropartisanship -.185 (.308)
Constant 100.421 *** (13.760)
[rho] -.48
Number of cases 17
Adjusted R-squared .976
Durbin-Watson 2.32

Standard errors are in parentheses.
* p < .10; ** p < .05; *** p < .01.
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Author:Panagopoulos, Costas
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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