Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Public Presidency and Disciplinary Presumptions

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Public Presidency and Disciplinary Presumptions

Article excerpt

Doug Arnold (1982) distinguished between "overtilled" and "undertilled" areas of research in American politics. His purpose was to encourage a reallocation of scholarly labor from extensively studied areas with low and diminishing yields of new knowledge to fields that have "largely been abandoned, although they still offer great promise, [or have] ... never been well cultivated at all" (92).

Attention to the allocation of research labor needs to be complemented by scrutiny of another dimension--the harvesting and distribution of research outside fields and subfields to the broader discipline devoted to studying politics and policy. Though these research fields tend to produce veritable warehouses of findings, they are poorly understood or misapplied by scholars plowing different plots. In these cases, the misallocation problem that Arnold identified becomes compounded by a breakdown in the distribution system that delivers the fruits of labor to scholarly consumers. Gaps between the specialized research of particular fields or subfields (what I refer to as "field research") and broader disciplinary learning put researchers at risk of adopting assumptions and theoretical expectations about fields outside their areas of expertise that have been proven flawed or false. Such underharvesting raises questions about the way the political science community operates and the degree to which that community generates new knowledge through cumulative processes of learning and interaction.

The purpose of this article is to use research on the promotional presidency to stimulate a discussion about cross-field engagement and intellectual dialogue within political science. As an enormous body of research on the U.S. president's public promotions piles up, political observers and scholars outside the presidency field continue to mistakenly or incompletely interpret the research and, in cases where they do not draw on political science research at all, they have been prone to adopt unfounded assumptions. Initial critical assessments of Barack Obama's first term in office, and specifically his public promotion of health reform, illustrate this general pattern, and pose a revealing puzzle: Obama engaged in public promotion and his efforts failed to move public opinion or the legislative process. While Obama's sobering experience with health reform may be surprising to popular commentators and some political scientists, it is consistent (as I discuss shortly) with a large body of presidency research--throwing the underharvesting challenge into relief.

Understanding the conditional nature of presidential promotion requires appreciation for the interaction of agency and structure. White House appeals for public support often collide with structural constraints cemented into America's institutional and informational systems. Yet, institutions and interests also open up choices for strategic presidents who can adjust to lure allies and skillfully persuade them to deploy their institution resources to serve the president's agenda.

This article has two objectives. The first is to use the Obama health reform episode to underscore the misunderstanding of public presidency research outside the field. To be clear, though, this is not a study of health reform per se; this can be found elsewhere (cf. Jacobs and Skocpol 2012). Nor is this a comprehensive study of presidential public promotion under Obama; more in-depth research is required to understand the detailed content of Obama's messages and his particular mobilization strategies. The second objective is to outline a framework for understanding presidential promotion as conditional--one that extends beyond a personalistic account of individual traits toward a more impersonal and institutional explanation.

This article proceeds in four sections. The first reviews the disconnect between the presidency research and the assessments of Obama's public handling of health reform by political observers and the broader discipline. …

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