Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Presidential Persuasion on Social Issues: A Two-Way Street?

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Presidential Persuasion on Social Issues: A Two-Way Street?

Article excerpt

Although the ability of presidents to mobilize opinion on foreign policy issues is well documented, much less is known about presidents' abilities to change public attitudes on social and moral issues. We explore the limits of presidential persuasiveness by examining President Clinton's 1993 proposal to permit gay men and lesbian women to serve openly in the armed forces. Because the issue involved core values and religious beliefs, we might expect Clinton to have been unable to change voter preferences. However, we find evidence of a reciprocal relationship. Clinton's support for the issue persuaded some members of the public to support the policy, even as it also caused others to think less favorably of him.

The power to persuade is one of the most important powers of the modern presidency (Neustadt 1980). The president can focus public attention on his policy priorities (Kernell 1986; Edwards and Wood 1999; Canes-Wrone 2001) and can sometimes increase popular support for specific policy proposals (Edwards 1989: 141; Kernell 1986). This latter possibility is especially true on complex issues where the public has little information, such as foreign policy and technical matters (Canes-Wrone and de Marchi 2002; Mueller 1973; Conover and Sigelman 1982; Hurwitz 1989; Sigelman 1980; Rosen 1973).

But how far does the president's power to persuade go? Edwards (1989, 143) argues that the president can lead only "at the margins." Our goal in this article is to explore where these margins are and why they exist. In particular, we ask whether the power to persuade the public extends to "easy" issues-issues that tend to be symbolic rather than technical and focus on fundamental values rather than how best to achieve shared goals (Carmines and Stimson 1980). If such persuasion is possible, what are its costs? How much political capital must a president spend to persuade on these types of issues?

We assess these questions by analyzing President Clinton's ability to persuade voters on the gays in the military issue. That issue arose early in the Clinton administration, when a little-remarked campaign promise to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military collided with intense opposition from voters, members of Congress, and military leaders. The case provides an excellent opportunity to test the limits of presidential persuasion, for this issue involved deeply ingrained values that are likely to be resistant to change.

Our approach is to examine panel survey data on both the gays in the military issue and Clinton before the controversy and afterward. If Clinton were influential, we would expect that those favorably inclined toward him became more favorably inclined toward allowing gays to serve in the military; if he were not, we would expect to see no such relationship. We can also assess whether the issue hurt Clinton by seeing how voters' stands on the gays in the military issue affected their opinion of Clinton.


Understanding the president's ability to affect public opinion is crucial for many who study American politics. Presidential persuasion is important to presidential scholars, for the ability to lead is, as Neustadt points out, intimately related to the ability to persuade. Congressional scholars often turn to presidential persuasion-or the lack thereof-to explain why some legislation fares well and other legislation does not. Opinion scholars view presidential persuasion as an opportunity to learn about how voters form and change opinions and values.

Significant evidence indicates that the president can affect public opinion. Most prominently presidents can increase the salience of an issue by using the powers of the office to publicize the issue (Canes-Wrone 2001). Classic examples include Reagan's mobilization of voters in support of his tax cuts (Edwards 1989: 141) and Truman's mobilization of support in favor of aid to Turkey and Greece (Kernell 1986). …

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