Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidential Position Taking and the Puzzle of Representation

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidential Position Taking and the Puzzle of Representation

Article excerpt

The president's representational responsibilities are unique and varied. Because a national constituency elects the president, the centrist model of representation contends that presidents must respond to and lead the entire nation. Woodrow Wilson (1961, 67-68) observed this when he wrote that as "political leader of the nation," the president is "representative of no constituency but of the whole people." James MacGregor Burns (1973, 106) echoed this perception: "the President is custodian of popular safety, national destiny, and the conscience of the people." Consistent with the centrist view of representation, numerous scholars have found that presidents are highly responsive to changes in national public mood (Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002; Jacobs 1992; Stimson, Erikson, and MacKuen 1995), respond to the national public concerns about foreign and economic issues (Cohen 1999), and respond to national public preferences conditionally, by issue area, popularity, and the president's electoral cycle (Canes-Wrone and Shorts 2004; Rottinghaus 2006).

Being a partisan political figure, the president also represents party interests (Skinner 2008). This partisan model of representation holds that presidents must consider their partisan's policy preferences to win their party's nomination (see Key 1964), and the president's success in Congress is predicated on party control (Bond and Fleisher 1990; Edwards 1989). Unsurprisingly, party predicts presidential liberalism and contributes to presidential representation of public opinion (Stimson, MacKuen, and Erikson 1995). Wlezien (1996), in particular, finds that the president's party affiliation is a strong indicator of representation on defense spending in the 1970s and 1980s. Wood (2009) not only shows that the partisan model best explains the relationship between presidential liberalism and public mood, but, consistent with Wlezien's (1995) thermostatic model of representation, he also demonstrates that the national public does not follow, but rather tends to move away from the president's policy liberalism over time.

Yet, debate persists on two levels regarding the president's responsiveness to public opinion. First, despite the plausibility that presidents may prefer taking positions on partisan issues and recent evidence that confirms this tendency (Wood 2009), most research that considers presidential-public relationships builds upon the centrist model of representation, that presidents represent the nation. Canes-Wrone's (2006) strategic model of going public, for example, hinges on presidential leadership of issues that are popular with the mass public. Canes-Wrone and Shotts (2004) also develop a model of centrist presidential representation. Still others argue that presidents may try to satisfy both constituencies by switching their support between mass and partisan public opinion (Druckman and Jacobs 2006; Pious 1996, 184), but this is not without costs, as the public shifts its support away from the president when he takes partisan positions (Wood 2009, 158). Second, public opinion is measured in both aggregated, ideological ways (Simson, MacKuen, and Erikson 1995; Wood 2009; Wood and Lee 2009) and directly through public opinion polling (Canes-Wrone and Shorts 2004; Rottinghaus 2006). Despite having certain advantages, these alternative measures may produce different conclusions about presidential representation.

Since presidents have myriad reasons to represent partisans and there are multiple ways to measure representation, reexamining presidential representation may clarify the role presidential partisans play in the president's policy positions. The purpose of this article is to build on the existing literature by analyzing the impact of mass and partisan opinion on the representational position taking of several presidents. We ask, do presidents tend to be more representative of mass or partisan publics on their specific policy positions? …

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