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How Much Do We Still Trust And Follow Our Presidents?

Updated on July 5, 2013

A majority of Americans are content with the illegal wiretapping that has been occurring during the Obama administration. Why do most people believe President Obama is justified in illegally spying on them through telephone and phone surveillance? Does this attitude reflect a growing trust or growing cynicism within the American public?

How Americans Rallied Behind Kennedy’s Goal of Sending a Man to the Moon.

President Kennedy appeared before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, and set the goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. In many ways, you could say the nation became transfixed on meeting his goal. We put together our resources and developed the technology. Of course we became cavalier about safety when developing this technology. Our hasty attitude toward meeting this deadline led to the Apollo I fire that killed Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967. Despite this tragic setback we eventually succeeded. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

When you think about the public policy benefits of sending a man to the moon they are actually rather small. What did we really gain from sending someone to the moon? The moon landing led to further manned lunar exploration to examine rocks. These rocks taught us a great deal about the origins of the moon and our solar system. It may have also contributed to people’s interests in space. This interest may have contributed to more funding for observatories and then probes such as Hubble and now Kepler, all of which have taught us a great deal about the universe. We will probably learn even more about the universe from future probes and observatories.

Most of what we have learned from the universe, however, has been from unmanned missions. Hubble and Kepler have shown how the universe is expanding and updated us on the approximate number of galaxies: 50-100 billion. They have also helped us identify planets outside our solar system, including ones that could support life. Skylab and the space shuttle have not taught us about these things. Instead they teach us about how frogs react to weightlessness and how tomato seeds grow after being in a weightless environment. While the space shuttle Discovery released the Hubble space telescope, Kepler was launched directly from Cape Canaveral. We can launch satellites that teach us about the universe at a fraction of the cost. Probes could have gone to the moon to examine rocks and teach us the same things about our solar system that we learned by sending men there to collect these rocks, similar to the way of learned a great deal about Mars simply from probes.

In reality, President Kennedy wanted us to send a man to the moon so we could say to the Soviets: “We sent a man to the moon. You didn’t. Nannabobo.” Did that change anything? President Brezhnev did not immediately convert the Soviet Union into a capitalist democracy. The Soviet people did not realize how great it was to live in America and then rise up against the government. Soviet propaganda and other control methods prevented that from happening. It was only 20 years later that the Soviet Union crumbled after President Gorbachev introduced economic and social reforms, which led Soviet citizens to realize what they were missing.

The point is that the American people blindly trusted their leaders at the time Kennedy was president. If the president said we needed to do something everyone rallied together to accomplish it. They presumed that elected officials would act in the best interests of the country, and that these elected officials would not act dishonestly. Sometimes that may have been a good thing. Other times it may have been a bad thing. Most likely this sentiment reflected a confidence that the president knew what was right, and would act in America’s best interests. Some people believe that sentiment is gone, and that it is because Americans have lost confidence in their leaders. The people’s approval of President Obama spying on them to protect national security questions whether people have lost confidence in their leaders first of all. Secondly, if there is a loss of this confidence there is still the question of whether Americans have stopped rallying behind the president when he wants to do something significant.

Do Americans Still Rally Behind A President’s Goals?

Watergate was considered the key catalyst in causing Americans to lose confidence in their leaders. People were shocked to learn that our president would become involved in covering up the crimes of people in his administration. Had there not been this outrage the investigation may not have continued and Nixon would, therefore, not have resigned from office.

Since Watergate, however, Americans have showed little outrage when politicians become involved in scandal. During the Iran Contra Affair scandal of the mid-1980’s there were few calls for President Reagan’s resignation. Even though his lack of supervision had led to the United States selling arms to Iran and the proceeds going to the terrorist “Contra” organization in Nicaragua, Reagan left office at the end of his second term with the highest approval rating since Franklin Roosevelt.

President Clinton had a similar experience 12 years later. Congress and Ken Starr’s independent council investigated him for lying about an affair he had with an intern. The public, however, had little appetite for finding out whether or not he had lied. Many people thought that it was okay if he had lied and that the investigations dug into his private life too much. The Republicans in Congress impeached him only because out of their own interests not out of popular demand. That caused the Republicans to actually lose seats in Congress in the 1998 midterm elections. Similar to Reagan, Clinton left office with a high approval rating, despite his questionable ethics. While it was not clear he had actually lied under oath he had clearly worked his way around the truth by redefining words such as “is.”

At the same time, many people would say that we no longer blindly follow our presidents. We do not automatically assume that they are doing the right thing. Both Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush set the goal of sending someone to Mars, as an example. Yet, there has been no serious effort to have a manned Mars mission since then. Of course the public’s disinterest in going to Mars may have related to the Cold War ending. People no longer saw it as a way to defeat a totalitarian nation.

Have we become cynical towards our leaders and so we do not blindly follow them, yet we do not show outrage when they become involved in scandal? Why do we continue to like these leaders when they come out of a scandal, especially when we have this cynicism?

Watergate probably immunized Americans to political scandal. They no longer gasp in horror when they hear that a president has lied. Some political scientists think the average American went from having a presumption that our leaders are highly ethical to a presumption that they are complete crooks. Now when we hear a president has lied about something the average American’s thought is: “Well he’s a politician. Of course he lies.” Their thought is that it would take too many resources and too much energy to go impeach such a president when you would simply be replacing them with another crook. Additionally, many more Americans have less of an emotional response to learning about a president lying, simply because they have already experienced a president lying.

It is, however, not clear that the American people’s failure to go after a president who has done something illegal stems from a presumption that he is a crook, or else desensitization to scandal. Some sentiment may still exist that the president acts in our interests, and that they have good reason for doing whatever they did.

It is highly possible that Reagan got away with the Iran Contra scandal because the public believed his administration was acting in America’s best interests. Many Americans, for instance, saw Oliver North as a patriot. They, therefore, did not care about him lying to Congress among other things. Selling arms to Iran was to help free hostages being held by Iranian backed groups in Lebanon. The Contras were fighting Communism in Nicaragua. Americans may have also thought that Reagan was not acting intentionally, unlike Nixon. When you examine people’s personal liking of Reagan’s personality they were more inclined to make these conclusions. Nixon, even though he won 49 states when winning reelection just as Reagan did, did not have the personal charisma that Reagan had.

People may have felt that Clinton was justified in doing what he did, in a different way. They believed that the questions were too personal and unrelated to his job. So he was, therefore, justified in lying.

Even the public’s failure to demand George W. Bush’s impeachment after reports of the administration committing illegal surveillance, and then lying about weapons of mass destruction, surfaced may have related to a belief that Bush was acting in the best interests of the country. (Only about half of Americans favored impeaching Bush. There was not a clear consensus for impeachment.) People may have not cared that George Bush lied about a tyrant because Saddam Hussein was bad anyway. He needed to be removed, and so Bush needed to come up with whatever justifications-true or not-to remove Mr. Hussein. Most significantly, many people still assumed Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda, even if he did not have weapons of mass destruction. So Bush was protecting Americans from Al Qaeda when he lied about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction.

Now polling showed Bush’s approval ratings plummeting, and only about a third of the population thought he was honest. While Americans may have felt he was dishonest and doing a poor job, the fact that he had taken out a dictator who they thought was a threat to America prevented people from becoming outraged enough to demand Bush’s impeachment. Americans may have used similar reasoning in regards to the illegal wiretapping, both now and in 2005.

The true test of whether the public has become desensitized is to have another scandal similar to Watergate, in which a president either acts illegally to win reelection or else covers up what someone else did. If the public does not react in the same way then as they in 1973 and 1974 we know they have become desensitized to scandal. The Justice Department scandal of 2006, in which Bush administration officials fired prosecutors for not trying to dig up dirt on Democrats running for office, did not clearly implicate President Bush. Congress and the media were also reluctant to push for a thorough investigation. That might be a problem with future scandals similar to Watergate.

It is clear that Americans do not properly think through their rationalizations, nor are they properly educated when they come up with their conclusions. Saddam Hussein, for instance, did not have ties to Al Qaeda. There is no evidence that Iraq is better without him there either. Lying about weapons of mass destruction essentially pulled us into a war that did not benefit Iraqis, or make us safer either.

Regardless, Americans have not unquestionably demonstrated a new cynicism that allows politicians to actually get away with more outrageous activity. Similarly, Americans still demonstrate a certain amount of trust and commitment to do what a president wants. The approval of President Obama allowing government surveillance into much of people’s private lives is a perfect example.


“AP poll: Most Americans Say Bush Not Honest Administration Under Scrutiny For Justifications for Iraq War, CIA Leak Case,” November 11, 2005,

“Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic Public Says Investigate Terrorism, Even If It Intrudes on Privacy,” June 10, 2013,

Newport, Frank. “Where Do Americans Stand on the Wiretapping Issue?: Despite Differences in Question Wording, It Appears That Americans Tilt Toward Favoring the Program,” February 24, 2006,

“Poll: 45% say impeach Bush Even More Americans Want
Proceedings Against Cheney,” July 6, 2007,

Dionne, E.J. Jr.“Pardon of North Before His Trial Opposed In Poll,” March 24, 1988,


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      5 years ago

      Interesting idea for an article. Perhaps including something about abandoning America's space mission by the Obama administration would help balance things more. Also, Saddam did have contact with Al Qaeda and Bin Laden with several meetings between Saddam's intelligence chief in Sudan. There are many misreported aspects of the Iraq War that have worked their way into becoming popular "truth." To find the full story, any more, one must go to the foreign press.


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