American Civil Rights Policy from Truman to Clinton: The Role of Presidential Leadership

By Steven A. Shull | Go to book overview

3
Going Public Through
Policy Statements

Public communications by presidents are an important influence on public policy. Research suggests that presidents can use such messages to set their own agenda, if not always the broader government agenda ( Shull 1983, chap. 2; Light 1982). Much of what appears on the subsequent public and government agenda probably can be traced to presidential communications ( Cohen 1995). Public messages give presidents the opportunity to set the stage for policy innovations, which usually come from the White House ( Light 1982; Redford 1969; Kingdon 1984; Shull 1983). Communications provide an important opportunity for presidents to "go public" in a highly discretionary policy area, such as civil rights.

Language, especially in a political context, is often symbolic. Murray Edelman, whose work reveals the profound and pervasive influence of symbols, sees political decision making as a "passing parade of abstract symbols" ( 1964, 5). Presidents are focal symbols of government. They use symbols in their language to help control their agendas and to obtain support for past, present, or future policy ( Edelman 1964). Symbols may also help presidents persuade those inside and outside government to accept their views. Charles Elder and Roger Cobb define a symbol as "the process of attributing meaning to an object" ( 1983, 29). Symbols provide little reference to specific (or tangible) actions and policies but represent vague,

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