The Contemporary Presidency: The Permanence of the "Permanent Campaign": George W. Bush's Public Presidency. (Features)

By Cook, Corey | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: The Permanence of the "Permanent Campaign": George W. Bush's Public Presidency. (Features)


Cook, Corey, Presidential Studies Quarterly


One of the most conspicuous trends in the development of the modern American presidency is the emergence and growth of the plebiscitary presidency. Unlike their institutional forbearers who typically transmitted policy preferences directly to Congress in writing and rarely engaged in public travel (Tulis 1987), contemporary presidents engage in a permanent public campaign to promote legislative priorities. This blend of extensive public addresses, symbolic appeals, image formulation, pulse taking, and frequent travel across the country "remakes governing into an instrument designed to sustain an elected official's public popularity. It is engineering of consent with a vengeance" (Blumenthal 1980, 7). Scholars distinguish between the collaborative and deliberative process of governing and the more adversarial and persuasive process of campaigning by suggesting that "campaigning is geared to one unambiguous decision point in time ... [and] governing by contrast has many inter connected points of outcome through time" (Heclo 2000, 11). Yet as "campaigning for policy" becomes more prevalent, these traditional divisions are blurred--presidents mobilize whatever strategic resources they can muster to enhance their negotiation and bargaining position and gain leverage vis-a-vis other political actors, and public appeals over the heads of members of Congress have become a frequent technique (Jones 1998, 2000). Elected officials increasingly utter lines similar to those offered by President George W. Bush in his address to the National Restaurant Association by imploring his audience to "help me convince Members of Congress to listen."

Historical perspectives on this "permanent campaign" imply that its evolution is one of punctuated equilibrium rather than linear secular change (Kernell 1997; Tulis 1987; Kernell and Jacobson 2000). The proximate causes cited for the emergence of this institutional development, including the decline of political parties, rise of candidate-centric elections, significance of fund-raising, expansion of interest group public activism, advancement of information and communications technology, growth in the size and scope of the federal government, and the maturation of polling and public relations as specialized fields, occurred sporadically throughout the past century (Heclo 2000; Kernell 19.97; Jones 2000; West and Loomis 1999; King 1997). "The belief in the importance of rhetoric is not surprising for presidents elected in the age of mass communications or for White House political advisers who employed public relations techniques adeptly during a successful presidential campaign" (Edwards 1999, 46). But the Clinton presidency served as something of a watershed in this regard, "the ultimate example of the rhetorical presidency--a presidency based on a perpetual campaign to obtain the public's support and fed by public opinion polls, focus groups, and public relations memos" (Edwards 1999, 33). Because Clinton "[took] the presidency to the country more than most observers and pundits imagined possible" (Kernell 1997, 121), and this governing style seemed so perfectly suited to his unique talents, personal preferences, political style, and precarious strategic position, scholars questioned whether Clinton was simply a unique case or the embodiment of broader changes in national politics and the institution of the American presidency. This article addresses this question by comparing data on presidential travel and public speech making between the first year of the Clinton and Bush administrations and explores stylistic and strategic variants in the conduct of the permanent campaign.

Lessons from the Clinton Presidency

Bill Clinton committed early in his presidency to morphing his successful campaign infrastructure into a governing apparatus. Three days after his inauguration, Clinton announced his intention to "sell" his as-yet-incomplete comprehensive health care reform proposal: "this is going to be an unprecedented effort. …

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