Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Building Coalitions

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Building Coalitions

Article excerpt

Building coalitions is at the core of governing in America. The necessity of forming coalitions is inevitable in a large, diverse nation in which political power is fragmented both vertically and horizontally. Because the president in most instances requires the approval of the legislature to make public policy, Congress is the proximate site of coalition building. Because advances in technology allow the president to reach the public directly and because the White House views public support as crucial to its success, presidents invest substantial time and effort in building support for themselves and their polices among the public.

In this article, I explore the president's ability to build coalitions among the public and within Congress, examine the relationship between the institutional presidency and obstacles to coalition building, and inquire whether the presidency as an institution is adequate to the task of building the coalitions necessary for governing.

Coalition Building among the Public

Leading the public is at the center of the modern presidency. As parties weaken and bargaining resources diminish, presidents see themselves increasingly dependent on public support to accomplish their goals; and they devote substantial time, energy, and resources to obtaining this support. Presidents "go public" more than ever, depending on a steadily expanding White House public relations infrastructure to take their messages to the American people. In 1995, for example, the White House spent $18 million advertising on behalf of the president--a year before the presidential election (Woodward 1996, 344).

Thus, presidents are involved in a permanent campaign to build supportive coalitions. As Bill Clinton reflected on the results of the 1994 elections, he concluded that the principal cause of the Democrats' stunning defeat was his failure to communicate his achievements. "I got caught up in the parliamentary aspect of the presidency and missed the leadership, bully pulpit function which is so critical" (Woodward 1996, 22).

The president's remark reflects four fundamental and widely shared premises about presidential leadership:

1. Members of Congress are responsive to public opinion.

2. Public support is crucial to the president's success.

3. The president must not only earn public support with his performance in office but also must actively take his case to the people. Moreover, he must not only do it at reelection time but all the time.

4. Through the permanent campaign, the White House can persuade or even mobilize the public.

Leading the public--changing opinions and mobilizing citizens into action--is perhaps the ultimate resource of the democratic political leader. It is difficult for others who hold power to deny the legitimate demands of a president with popular support. Commentators on the presidency often assume that the White House can persuade or even mobilize the public if the president is a skilled enough communicator.

One of the crowning ironies of the contemporary presidency is that at the same time that presidents increasingly attempt to govern by campaigning--"going public," public support is elusive, perhaps more than ever before. In the century since Theodore Roosevelt declared the White House a "bully pulpit," presidents often have found the public unresponsive to issues at the top of the White House's agenda and unreceptive to requests to think about, much less act on, political matters. When asked about his "biggest disappointment as president," George Bush replied, "I just wasn't a good enough communicator."

To evaluate the president's ability to build coalitions among the public, we must know how successful presidents are in employing the bully pulpit to lead public opinion. There is much that we have to learn about this topic, but we can obtain a reasonable sense of the challenges facing presidents by reviewing what we know about presidential leadership of public opinion and then briefly examining the experience of two of the most able communicators in the past half century: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. …

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