At first blush, the Gallup Poll’s year-end finding that Barack Obama heads the list of men Americans most admire is hardly news. Hillary Clinton ranks first among the most admired women. Since 1946, the first time Gallup asked the public to identify the people they most admire, the incumbent president has come in first 52 out of 64 times. That suggests that those who participate in Gallup’s survey place a higher value on name recognition than on anything else.
To fall from first place in the hearts of their countrymen, presidents had to become identified in the popular mind with catastrophes the public deemed of a particular president’s making. Dwight D. Eisenhower edged out Truman in 1950, the year that saw the onset on the Korean War. Douglas MacArthur did the same in 1951 after Truman relieved the “old soldier” of his command in Korea. Americans prefer that their wars be short and winnable, and the reasons for them easy to explain. There may be a lesson here for Obama to heed. (Readers will note talk of a possible presidential run by Gen. David Petraeus in either 2012 or 2016 has virtually ceased.)
This story repeated itself less than a generation later when the public, weary of both the war in Vietnam and the way Lyndon Johnson conducted it, again declined to name the incumbent president as the man they most admired. In his stead, they once again selected Ike. Few were surprised when the public dropped Nixon at the height of Watergate and months after his resignation. In his stead, they selected his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.
In 1980, Pope John Paul II captured the “most admired” title that had, for the previous four years, been Jimmy Carter’s. That, though, was in the midst of a prolonged hostage crisis and before the Reagan magic set in. (Americans don’t like to see their president appear weak to the nation’s enemies and expect them, when they choose to “engage” with leaders of rogue states, to produce positive results.)
The poll’s results contain some other lessons both for Obama and for the rest of us. One is that the American people have gotten over Bush fatigue. Coming in second on their list of the ten most admired men was none other than George W. Bush. Whatever its defects, the Bush “brand” retains more luster than any other the Republicans have yet produced. (Jeb, are you paying attention?)
Another is that three religious figures — Billy Graham, Pope Benedict XVI, and the Dalai Lama — made it on to the list of the top ten. This suggests that the American people remain a religious people — or, at least, want to be perceived as such. Of all the groups studied this past election cycle, what was once termed the “religious vote” (let alone the “religious right”) was the dog that did “not bark.” Less than a decade ago, the story line among liberal elites had been that such people were engaged in a stealth campaign to turn the United States into a theocracy. This year, the narrative took on a new villain, the tea parties. With the tea partiers making good on their claims not to be all that concerned with the so-called social issues (where did they stand on repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”?), we and Obama can count on some other entity to fill this void. People of faith can be counted on to weigh in again —and heavily — when the public debate returns again to ethical questions such as when life begins, when it ends, what actions government will sanction or ban, and whether tax dollars be used to fund exhibitions offensive to Christians. We may also see both homeschooling and vouchers (“school choice”) re-enter the ongoing debate over how best to improve the quality of education American schoolchildren receive.
Whatever surprises Gallup’s survey contained appear in its findings of the list of women Americans said they most admire. For the first time in decades, the current first lady did not lead the pack. That honor went to Hillary Clinton, who headed the list of “most honored women” during her years as first lady. Michelle Obama placed fourth. Placing ahead of her were not only Oprah Winfrey (third), who, arguably, did more to make Barack Obama a household word than anyone else, but also Sarah Palin, who came in second.
“Mama Grizzly” beat out Queen Elizabeth II and two former first ladies, Laura and Barbara Bush. (In 2011, the year of the Ronald Reagan Centennial, we can expect Nancy Reagan to reappear among the ten “most admired” women.) Other than Obama, Palin was the only possible 2012 presidential contender to make the “most admired” list. Therein may lay an unfolding story.
Like her or not, agree with her or not, Palin emerged from 2010 having made her point. Other politicians as well as the media pay attention to what she says. And she has retained her ability to attract crowds. Palin may not get to be queen the next time out. But she may well determine who gets to be king. That should keep many tongues wagging and teeth chattering in Washington as we begin a new calendar year — and the cause will be neither cold nor snow.
– Alvin S. Felzenberg is the author of The Leaders We Deserve and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. He is currently at work on a book about NR founder William F. Buckley Jr.