Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contextual Presidency: The Negative Shift in Presidential Immigration Rhetoric

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contextual Presidency: The Negative Shift in Presidential Immigration Rhetoric

Article excerpt

Neustadt's (1991) claim that presidential power is the power to persuade highlights the expectation for what presidents are supposed to do with their rhetoric. The rhetoric is supposed to bring about a desired result. Therefore, the literature on presidential rhetoric often focuses upon what presidents attempt to accomplish with the use of their rhetoric (Smith 1983). Kernell (2007) maintains that presidents "go public" with their requests with the hope that it will translate into policies. The most celebrated studies research the presidents' ability to shape the agenda with what is discussed in the State of the Union Addresses (Cohen 1995; Edwards and Wood 1999), how presidents can influence Congress (Barrett 2005; Canes-Wrone 2004), how they can control what the media decides to report (Cohen 2008; Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake 2008), and how they are able to shape the bureaucracy (Whitford and Yates 2009), as well as their ability to influence how the public approves of their performance (Druckman and Holmes 2004; Edwards, 2003), how they can change attitudes and perspectives on public policies (Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake 2006), and how they can manipulate public opinion (Brace and Hinckley 1992; Edwards 2003; Welch 2000).

Presidential behavior is often situated within a social structure and incentivized by historical context. Beasley's (2006) edited volume on presidential immigration provides an interesting, qualitative look at how presidents have historically addressed immigration and used their rhetoric to frame the public's perception of immigrants. The contained essays point out, through selected case studies, how presidents have discussed specific immigrant groups as a positive, beneficial addition to American life while at the same time, in many contexts, repeatedly acting xenophobically and framing immigrants and the immigration process as detrimental.

The scope of this analysis is not to determine if presidents are effective with using their rhetoric to influence immigration policy, however. We simply looked at presidential party platforms to see how each president discussed their policy positions on immigration. These presidential preferences provided a baseline for the tone and content one could expect presidents to have in their immigration rhetoric. We used this understanding of each president's policy preferences for immigration to ascertain what other conditions or variables may influence the president to say something substantively different from that which was articulated in the party platform. As researchers, we need to step back and consider the impetus for negativity and themes in presidential rhetoric. We argue that the content of presidential rhetoric on salient issues such as immigration can often be determined by the context in which it is given rather than an autonomous entrepreneurial policy exposition advocated by the president (Cook 2002; Doherty 2007; Miroff 2003).

We argue that the negativity in immigration rhetoric, a highly salient and controversial policy, is more likely the result of the context in which presidents find themselves speaking (see Figure 1). Aside from Rottinghaus' (2006) study on public opinion, Peterson and Djupe's (2005) study on negative primary campaigns, and Wood's (2007) study of presidential rhetoric and the tone of the economy, as well as Hart's (1987) analysis of rhetorical leadership, a literature on the rhetoric of modern and conspicuous policies as shaped by context has not been fully developed, especially given the rise in the salience of immigration by the public and the media. Zarefsky's (2004) assessment of presidential rhetoric says that it is theoretically possible that presidents pay attention to the context of their speeches but does not provide substantial empirical analysis that addresses the issue. As scholarship develops, more emphasis needs to be placed on studying the antecedent conditions of presidential speeches. We argue that ascertaining what conditions can motivate presidents to discuss immigration so negatively needs further inquiry, particularly since the president-controlled party platforms are so positive. …

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