Sunday, December 7, 2008

More on the Presidency

Looking at the Presidential Approval Ratings

When I teach the unit on the Executive Branch I like to bring the unit to a conclusion with two points. First, I show (or have the students view on their own) the HBO video Truman which was based on the David McCullough book by the same title. (See previous blog on using this video in class and related sites on the internet.) My purpose here is twofold; I believe this movie more than any other shows the humanity of the men who serve. Truman was a flawed man with ambitions and conceits identical to you and I. Yet Truman put aside his own personal motivations in order to make the best possible decisions for the nation at a very critical time in history. This leads to wonderful discussions on the Man vs. The Job.

My second purpose is that at the very end of the video we see Truman leaving office and going to the D.C. train station where a crowd of admirers surround him in a farewell tribute. As the scene plays out, the actress playing Margaret Truman reads a voice-over saying that when Truman left office his approval ratings were very low. I use this as a jump off point to go into a discussion on approval ratings and the President.

On the topic of approval ratings, I would like to direct you to a couple of web sites and one article that can be used for teaching and discussing this topic. The first of these is Wikipedia...yes I used the "W" word again. If you can't beat them, join them! The Wikipedia site on Presidential Approval Ratings has all of the approval rating graphs from FDR through our current president. As a class, we look at each one of these graphs and discuss for each president why there are peaks and why there are ebbs in the graph based on historical events.

For example, with the current president we discuss relatively low rates at the onset of the first term (result of a very tight and strange 2000 election), the spike following 9-11, the spike after the apparent success of the Iraq engagement, and then the slow decline as the war dragged on and the economy tanked. The students really get into these discussions...they are excellent ways to bring in the recent history and the politics of public perceptions. I start with FDR and move on. The final question for the students is: "What will the new President's chart look like?" This question forces the students to look at the issues facing Mr. Obama and what will happen to his chart if policies fail or succeed.

The second option for you is the Roper Center for Public Opinion Archive. If you are squeamish about Wikipedia, this site has not only the graphs, but also the data points for FDR through GWB. You can do the above lesson with this site equally as well.

The last place I would like to direct you is an excellent article about the graphs and approval rating titled "Presidential Approval in Perspective". I don't have the students read this, but it is an essential reading for the teacher to have under the belt when doing the above activity. In short, the article discusses how the approval graphs can be misleading and what needs to be done to correct false impressions that presenting data graphically can lead to. I like to summarize the concepts of Dr. Franklin's article and then ask the students questions to see if they get his message of using caution in making comparisons of graphic representations of data.

OK...some pretty heady stuff here, but the students respond positively to it and it does fulfill the College Board's desire for us to teach more about data, charts and graphs, and using these tools. Keep in mind that in the past graphs have been the basis for Free Response Questions. Building graph reading into our lessons is critical. Don't always assume that the students have these skill...they don't!!!!!!!

Next week I will move on and discuss some things I like to look at with the Budget Unit. Until then...

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