Breaking through the Noise: Presidential Leadership, Public Opinion, and the News Media

Breaking through the Noise: Presidential Leadership, Public Opinion, and the News Media

Breaking through the Noise: Presidential Leadership, Public Opinion, and the News Media

Breaking through the Noise: Presidential Leadership, Public Opinion, and the News Media

Synopsis

Modern presidents engage in public leadership through national television addresses, routine speechmaking, and by speaking to local audiences. With these strategies, presidents tend to influence the media's agenda. In fact, presidential leadership of the news media provides an important avenue for indirect presidential leadership of the public, the president's ultimate target audience. Although frequently left out of sophisticated treatments of the public presidency, the media are directly incorporated into this book's theoretical approach and analysis.

The authors find that when the public expresses real concern about an issue, such as high unemployment, the president tends to be responsive. But when the president gives attention to an issue in which the public does not have a preexisting interest, he can expect, through the news media, to directly influence public opinion. Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake offer key insights on when presidents are likely to have their greatest leadership successes and demonstrate that presidents can indeed "break through the noise" of news coverage to lead the public agenda.

Excerpt

Called the "Great Communicator" for his remarkable oratorical skill, President Ronald Reagan purportedly could sway the public to support him, using television to engage, motivate, and inspire the viewing audience. Decades after the end of his presidency, journalists recall with nostalgia Reagan’s mystic ability to connect emotionally with and thus lead the American people by saying “a few simple things passionately” (Packer 2010; see also Cannon 2004; Hansen 2004). Reagan’s alleged public relations prowess has become the standard to which subsequent presidents are compared. The expectation of effective presidential leadership is furthered by contemporary presidents who have marshaled an extensive White House public relations operation to lead the public and news media (Kumar 2007). A failure of leadership for contemporary presidents, therefore, is often reduced to a failure of communication. Despite this conventional understanding of presidential leadership that pervades Washington, D.C., systematic evidence of effective presidential leadership of the public proves illusive, even for the “great communicator” (Edwards 2003). In this book we are guided by the following puzzle: Why has presidential leadership of the public been unimpressive, even as the presidency retains substantial institutional tools to lead the public and news media?

The importance of this question is illustrated with two examples from both Reagan and Obama who, despite being perceived as powerful orators by their contemporaries, struggled in their efforts to lead the public. One of President Reagan’s top policy priorities concerned relations with Central America. Reagan’s public relations strategy centered on convincing the American people that the communist threat in Central America was real and that adequately funding the Nicaraguan Contras, an anticommunist guerilla force, was the best strategy to confront it. Reagan raised the issue many times with the American people, as he sought . . .

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