Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Public Presidency, Personal Approval Ratings, and Policy Making

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Public Presidency, Personal Approval Ratings, and Policy Making

Article excerpt

In this article, I argue that personal popularity is less essential to how a president's public activities affect policy making than commonly presumed, and provide two types of evidence for this argument. First, I show that unpopular as well as popular presidents can increase their prospects for legislative success by appealing to the public. Second, I demonstrate that on prominent issues, unpopular presidents are no more likely than popular ones to take positions favored by mass opinion. After relating these findings to a perspective of the public presidency that differs from the conventional wisdom, I discuss enduring questions concerning the topic.

Within the scholarly literature, the term "public presidency" has become associated with the idea that a president's public relations will promote his policy agenda only if he has high approval ratings. For instance, Edwards' (1983) pioneering book The Public Presidency: The Pursuit of Popular Support suggests that a key purpose of presidents' efforts to generate public approval is to increase executive bargaining power with Congress. Likewise, Kernell (1997) argues that only popular presidents can achieve policy success from "going public." Polsby (1978) also suggests that any influence presidents achieve from plebiscitary appeals is contingent on personal popularity. Furthering this perspective, Brace and Hinckley (1992) provide evidence for a "public relations presidency" in which the major goal of public activity is to boost short-term approval ratings that are presumed to advance the presidential agenda.

The literature as a whole thus indicates that public relations offer unpopular presidents little direct influence with the citizenry or Congress. The most an unpopular president can do is try to increase his public standing through actions such as giving speeches (e.g., Ragsdale 1984) or endorsing popular policy positions (e.g., Brace and Hinckley 1992; Hibbs 1987; Manza and Cook 2002). In fact, scholars have conjectured that these incentives can encourage an unpopular president to endorse popular positions regardless of whether he believes they are in citizens' long-term interests (e.g., Brace and Hinckley 1992).

This conventional wisdom that the policy impact of the public presidency is dependent upon high personal popularity is in many respects appealing. As Edwards (2003) observes, the perspective is held by many political practitioners in Washington. There is evidence presidents will structure public activities to boost short-term approval ratings, (1) and that popular presidents are better able than unpopular ones to shift citizens' policy preferences. (2) Finally, in what many scholars consider to be the most influential work on presidential power, Neustadt (1990 [1960]) argues that the primary sources of influence are public prestige and inside-the-beltway reputation. (3) The conventional wisdom on the public presidency accordingly fits nicely with the traditional view of executive power set forth by Neustadt. (4)

Despite these attractions of the conventional wisdom, there exist many reasons to doubt it. The scholarly evidence suggests that a president's personal popularity will offer him at best limited influence over mass opinion. (5) Indeed, Edwards (2003) has recently provided evidence that popular presidents cannot consistently alter citizens' policy preferences. Moreover, numerous studies challenge the thesis that a president's popularity significantly aids his legislative efforts. Some indicate it has no systematic impact on legislative success (e.g., Cohen et al. 2000; Collier and Sullivan 1995), while others find it provides influence only on issues that are salient and on which voters have little information (Canes-Wrone and de Marchi 2002). (6) All of these results indicate that if the president's public activities are directed at enhancing short-term personal popularity to advance his policy agenda, then these activities have little if any impact on policy making. …

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