Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Presidential Agenda Setting: Influences on the Emphasis of Foreign Policy

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Presidential Agenda Setting: Influences on the Emphasis of Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

Presidential power is significantly augmented by the ability to influence the political agenda. However, we know little about the factors leading presidents to pursue particular issues over others. In this analysis we examine the influences on presidential emphasis of foreign policy Using a Poisson regression analysis of speeches over the period 1953-93, we find that a number of different contextual factors including approval, presidential influence in Congress, and international events affect presidential emphasis on foreign policy

One of the most notable resources of U.S. presidents is their ability to influence the nation's political agenda. More than any other actor in the U.S. political arena, the president can focus the nation's attention-and its major political actors' attention-on a given issue (e.g., Kingdon 1995; Light 1991; Cohen 1995).

This influence may not extend directly to the actual policy alternatives chosen. However, given that a complex assortment of competing policy problems exists at any one time, and given that all or most of these policy problems will have advocates attempting to push "their" issue to preeminence, the ability to set the policy agenda alone gives the president considerable political leverage.

Given the president's importance in national agenda setting, what factors play a role in setting the president's agenda? That is, why do particular presidents choose specific policy items to emphasize at any one time at the expense of other issues? To date there has been little systematic exploration of this issue 1 In the analysis that follows we examined presidential speeches over the period 1953-93 to identify the factors that influence presidential emphasis on one general agenda item-foreign policy

DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH DESIGN

The agenda measure we utilized stems directly from a commonly accepted definition of agenda. This is the definition used by Light (1991: 2-3): "The President's agenda is perhaps best understood as a signal. It indicates what the President believes to be the most important issues facing his administration" [author's emphasis]. To find such a "signal" we turned to an obvious source: the actual words of presidents stated in speeches. Speeches provide the president with the best opportunity to influence the public because the president maintains complete control of the location, subject, and audience.

Using the Public Papers of the Presidents (various years) we examined all public presidential speeches and news conferences which occurred over the period 1953-93. 2 A speech was counted as a foreign policy speech if the sole substantive content of the speech dealt with foreign policy, war, diplomacy, foreign trade, or defense policy Speeches analyzed included nationally broadcast addresses, occasions where the president spoke to groups outside the White House, and the formal statements given at news conferences. We chose these occasions because they represent instances where the president controls speech content. Accordingly, presidents use these types of speeches as a presentation forum for important policy objectives. Questions at press conferences, for example, were not included because presidents have little control over the subject matter of the questions being asked.

While our measure is quite simple, it has several advantages. First, from a practical standpoint, our measure is reasonably objective, replicable, and relies only on actions of the president, not presidential subordinates. Second, analyzing speech content provides a far more comprehensive agenda measure relative to more common legislation-based measures (e.g., Light 1991: 57). Looking at the president's legislation priorities, for example, necessarily minimizes the importance of agenda items not normally translated into legislation (e.g., many foreign policy issues). Finally, given evidence that the content of presidential speeches affects the public's agenda (Cohen 1995) and given presidential incentives for building public support (Kernell 1993), there is reason to believe that measuring speech content directly taps into the more general concept of the president's agenda. …

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