Today, all presidents confront an expectations gap—the difference between what the public expects them to accomplish and what is actually possible
For decades, public expectations of U.S. presidents have become increasingly excessive and unreasonable. Despite much anecdotal evidence, few scholars have attempted to test the expectations gap thesis empirically. This is the first systematic study to prove the existence of the expectations gap and to identify the factors that contribute to the public’s disappointment in a given president.
Using data from five original surveys, the authors confirm that the expectations gap is manifest in public opinion. It leads to lower approval ratings, lowers the chance that a president will be reelected, and even contributes to the success of the political party that does not hold the White House in congressional midterm elections. This study provides important insights not only on the American presidency and public opinion, but also on citizens’ trust in government.
Richard Waterman is Professor of Political Science at the University of Kentucky. Carol L. Silva is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Risk and Crisis Management at the University of Oklahoma. Hank Jenkins-Smith is Professor of Political Science and Associate Director of the Center for Risk and Crisis Management at the University of Oklahoma.
“By bringing together a unique collection of survey data and qualitative case studies, the authors provide the most comprehensive analysis of the expectations gap to date, demonstrating that the expectations gap is politically consequential and carries meaningful implications for presidential approval and election results in both presidential and midterm contests.”
—Thomas Rudolph, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
“The public has high expectations of the president, and it is often disappointed. The authors do us a great service in providing the first systematic study of the expectations gap, explaining its causes and analyzing its consequences.”
—George C. Edwards III, Texas A&M University
"Waterman (Univ. of Kentucky) and Silva and Jenkins-Smith (both, Univ. of Oklahoma) contend that presidents, once in office, suffer from the expectations that are created during their campaigns... The real significance of this study is that it provides empirical evidence to substantiate many of the intuitive assumptions that scholars have about presidential popularity and the impact of the presidency on midterm elections."- J.F. Kraus