Presidents and the Economic Agenda

By Eshbaugh-Soha, Matthew; Peake, Jeffrey S. | Political Research Quarterly, March 2005 | Go to article overview
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Presidents and the Economic Agenda


Eshbaugh-Soha, Matthew, Peake, Jeffrey S., Political Research Quarterly


The president's ability to influence the national policy agenda is an important component of presidential power. Although some maintain that presidents are favorably situated to set agendas, others demonstrate that the president's agenda-setting skills vary considerably by policy area. What is more, scholars have yet to examine the impact presidents have had focusing attention on the economy, an issue of vital importance to their political success. Extending previous research on presidential agenda setting that did not address economic policy (Edwards and Wood 1999; Wood and Peake 1998), we test the impact that the president's public statements on the economy have on media and congressional attention to the economy. Using Vector Autoregression (VAR), we demonstrate that although presidents have some influence over the economic agenda, presidents are primarily responsive to media coverage of the economy.

Agenda setting is of primary importance to the distribution of power in American politics. The traditional model of agenda setting suggests the president is the "principal instrument" for nationalizing policy debates (Schattschneider 1960, 14). Baumgartner and Jones (1993: 241) observe that "no single actor can focus attention as clearly . . . as the president." Similarly, Kingdon (1995: 23) claims that "the president can single handedly set the agenda, not only of people in the executive branch, but also of people in Congress and outside the government." As unitary leader of the United States, the president has the "bully pulpit" at his disposal, giving him constant access to the media and Congress (see Edwards and Wood (1999) for a complete review of these arguments).

Influencing the policy agenda is an important-if not the most important-source of presidential power (see, among others, Edwards 1989). Presidential success in Congress and influence over the policy process is likely to increase if the president is able to dictate which issues are on the congressional agenda (see Bond and Fleisher 1990). Furthermore, the ability of presidents to influence the media's agenda or the public salience of issues is vital to the public support presidents receive (DeRouen and Peake 2002; Edwards, Mitchell, and Welch 1995). Some research demonstrates a positive link between the president's spoken word in the State of the Union address and the percentage of the public who finds economic, foreign, or civil rights policies to be the most important problem facing the United States (Cohen 1995; Hill 1998) or media attention to many issues (Lawrence 2003).

Although the literature suggests that presidents can set policy agendas, especially through the State of the Union, mounting evidence indicates that presidents are limited in their ability to do so across all speeches and statements. Presidents simply have much difficulty moving public opinion (Edwards and Eshbaugh-Soha 2001; Page, Shapiro, and Dempsey 1987) or influencing media attention to issues (Edwards and Wood 1999). Presidents have some influence over congressional and media attention to some domestic issues including health care, education, and crime (Edwards and Wood 1999), but they tend to react to media attention on other domestic policies (Flemming, Wood, and Bohte 1999). Presidential agenda-setting authority is further limited over foreign policy, where presidents have been primarily responsive to media attention and international events involving the major national security policy issues of the 1980s and 1990s (Peake 2001; Wood and Peake 1998).

Despite not finding consistent presidential leadership of policy agendas, these studies do not exhaust the possibility of presidential influence. Scholars have long held that policy type affects politics (Eowi 1972). Research notes variation by policy type in the presidents agenda-setting abilities, the impact of the presidents public approval on his success in Congress (Canes-Wrone and de Marchi 2002), and politicians' influence over regulatory policy (Gormley 1986).

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