Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: "Going Local" to Reform Social Security

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: "Going Local" to Reform Social Security

Article excerpt

Leading the media, public, and Congress through speeches is at the core of presidential governance. But just as the modern political environment requires presidents to appeal for support through speeches, presidents are increasingly unable to cultivate it. Presidents who attempt to lead the nation are faced with a public that tunes out the president's prime time addresses (Baum and Kernell 1999) and news media whose attention to presidential addresses is fleeting (Peake and Eshbaugh-Soha 2003). As a result, presidents have difficulty setting the media's agenda (Edwards and Wood 1999; Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake 2005) or moving public opinion (Edwards 2003).

The difficulties presidents face moving the nation have not been lost upon recent chief executives. Instead of appealing to the nation, as Ronald Reagan did successfully in 1981 (Kernell 1997), presidents have increased their domestic travel to garner public support for legislative proposals. Since the Carter administration, each president has traveled more extensively than his predecessor (Keen 2001). George W. Bush has continued this trend (Cohen and Powell 2005), with an average of nearly ninety domestic trips during each of his first three years, compared with only sixty during President Clinton's first three years in office. Bush has used domestic travel specifically to build support for his top policy initiatives: tax cuts in 2001 and the war in Iraq in 2003.

Whether presidents travel to address audiences in the all-important swing states, to influence opposition legislators who represent the local audience (Kiefer 2001; Cook 2002), or simply to generate news coverage, the reasons for adopting a local strategy begin with one expectation: local media are more responsive than national media to the White House's efforts to generate positive news. They will cover presidential speeches and do so more favorably than the national media will. Journalists, White House insiders, and some political scientists (Graber 2002) hold this as conventional wisdom and as one of the primary reasons for the increase of presidential domestic travel. (1) Arguably, this strategy provides presidents with a promising opportunity to lead the public and Congress in support of their policy initiatives.

President Bush's unprecedented "Social Security Reform Tour" (Edwards 2007) (2) provides a unique opportunity to assess the quantity and quality of local newspaper coverage of the presidency. Was local news coverage of the president's tour more positive than national news coverage? Was the White House able to generate substantial local news coverage of the president's policy and did newspapers come to endorse the president's policy proposal? How did the local news coverage change from place to place, by congressional district, or through time?

We expect that local news media will cover presidential trips favorably and that the White House will be rewarded with extensive local coverage of the president's efforts. But because the motivation behind positive local coverage is to attract readers with news of an extraordinary event, we expect that these stories will not be overwhelmingly substantive. Ultimately, therefore, the president may receive extensive and positive coverage but if it lacks significant insight into the president's policy, his strategy of going public locally may be unlikely to affect public opinion or generate congressional support.

Local Media Coverage of the President

Conventional wisdom holds that presidents visit communities throughout the United States because the national press is increasingly less likely to report on their activities (Cohen 2004) and local newspaper coverage of presidents is more positive than national coverage (Graber 2002). These claims, also supported by journalists and White House insiders, make sense. First, to a local community, a presidential visit is a unique event to local reporters and the newspaper's readers. …

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