Beating around the Bush
Q:Today Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is riding high, judging from his press clippings, while a year ago the same pundits wondered if he'd be forced to step down. Many leaders face these wild swings of perception: one moment a genius, the next a dolt. Should leaders pay attention to their own popularity - or lack of it?
Before September 11th, 2001, former President Bush's approval rating was teetering between 50 and 60 percent; post-September 11th, his rating spiked to over 80 percent and would remain there until the early spring of 2002. Now, approval ratings may not directly correlate with popularity, but the word popularity is derived from the Latin term populus, meaning 'the people.' At the very least, popularity relates to how suitable one is to the majority. President Bush capitalized on his popularity and the emotions of the US public after September 11th to launch a War on Terror.
As years passed, several polls revealed a growing opposition to the war. As suggested the Washington Post's Dana Milbank and Claudia Deane suggested in 2005, the initial popularity (or approval) that propelled President Bush forward after 9/11 began sinking, and sinking fast, as the war wore on.
What, then, does this say about leaders and popularity? If aware of one's own popularity, a leader can make strategic moves that otherwise would have been more difficult to make. If President Bush's popularity did not peak following the tragic events of 9/11, it can be argued that U.S.'s engagement in war would have been unlikely. Unfortunately, when popularity is high people are more inclined to follow and give you the benefit of the doubt -- even if you are wrong. -- Clayton Rosa
Take it from a small-town girl
This question hit home for me--literally, actually, as the daughter of a public official. My father has held a seat on the city council of our small town for over eight years; since I've been in high school, I've seen the rise and fall and rise again of just about everyone connected to city politics.
It seems to me that popularity goes up and down based on what is happening in the city right then, whether or not the individuals in question actually have control over those events. My dad was elected when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, and I heard scathing opinions of "the council" and their incompetence at letting the city get to this point. It didn't seem to matter that half of them were newly elected. Hearing my father lumped in to a fictional group of "corrupt politicians" was bizarre, to say the least.
Several years later, though, the same actions that were believed to be "incompetent" made so much money the city had a surplus!
That experience taught me a crucial lesson. You get more attention lambasting or celebrating people than you get for methodically considering their plans and weighing the likelihood of success over the long term. If a policy hasn't worked two months later, then it seems to be held up as a failure.
One thing I've learned in my year-long Coro fellowship is that sometimes a leader needs to make a decision and follow through, without constantly questioning her actions based on the whims of others. I think public figures should pay attention to public opinion when considering what people want--we are, after all, in a democracy--but never actually take any of the praise or blame personally. Public opinion can be a fickle thing; one minute you're a genius, the next a loser. The only way to keep your sanity is to ignore the characterizations and stick to your principles. --Liz Willis
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