When the President Goes Public: The Consequences of Communication Mode for Opinion Change across Issue Types and Groups

Article excerpt

Abstract

Evidence is mounting that presidents find difficulty in leading public opinion. However, focusing on presidential ability to lead mass opinion may underestimate the degree to which presidents are able to rally key groups on political and personal characteristics. In this article, the authors use an experimental design to test the effect of communication mode across issue types and groups. From three of President Bush's speeches on Iraq (the State of the Union, an Oval Office address, and a press conference), the data show that by going public the president can influence political opinions across certain issue types and groups. Among the findings are that the groups most affected by the president's speeches are not always his core constituency but often his putative opponents. However, this opinion change by the noncore groups is often limited to direct presidential addresses and evaluations of the president's personal qualities. The implication is that writing off presidential leadership as totally ineffective may be as yet premature.

Keywords

presidential approval, going public, domestic rallies

Can presidents lead public opinion? According to one school, presidents find considerable difficulty in doing so. George Edwards's On Deaf Ears (2003) sets the stage for one claim of presidential ineffectiveness in leading public opinion. Edwards (1996a, 1996b, 2003) shows that the public usually does not increase its approval rating in response to a president "going public." Several other works have also outlined conditions that limit the president's ability to lead public opinion, making it no easy task for him to exercise influence (Aberbach and Rockman 1999; Neustadt 2001; Roper 2004; Young Perkins 2005; Eshbaugh-Soha 2006; Cohen 2008). Presidents may fail to achieve their objectives for a number of interrelated reasons, including shrinking audiences, media message screeners, political partisanship, and the inattentiveness of mass audiences (Edwards 2003; Wattenberg 2004; Baum and Kernell 1999; Cohen 2008). Even being popular seems of limited assistance. Canes-Wrone (2004, 2006) finds presidential approval has little effect in assisting the White House in communicating its message to the public.

Others are more optimistic, while still acknowledging that presidential opinion leadership is conditional (Rottinghaus 2010). In light of recent research on media effects, it would be surprising if direct messages from the president were completely without influence of any sort on public opinion. There is a good deal of evidence from political advertising that words matter (Brader 2006; Geer 2006). Buchanan (2005, 8) claims the emotion that a president brings to a public appeal can influence opinions. Newman (2003) argues that perceptions of competence and integrity can be manipulated by a president skillfully going public. Presidential leadership is, of course, more than simply gaining approval. It also involves persuading the public that the president can lead and that he is taking the country in the right direction (Welch 2003a). This idea is the core behind going public- that the president can rally specific groups to aid him in achieving desired policy objectives (Kernell 2007). Even when presidents are confronted with a reluctant and inattentive public, there are still critical-issue publics that pay attention to the president. And presidents find them a receptive audience (Brace and Hinckley 1992, 1993; Heith 2004). It is possible there can be little overall movement in opinion following a president's speech but a meaningful gain or loss among particular groups and along alternative evaluative dimensions.

While presidents can go public in a number of ways (Kernell 2007), there are three major modes by which they use television to reach a mass audience. The Constitution requires presidents to give Congress information on the state of the union (this has evolved into an annual message), presidents can ask for television time to address the nation, and presidents can call a press conference that involves both a formal presentation and a question and answer session with the press. …