What Presidents Talk About: The Nixon Case

By Jacobs, Lawrence R.; Page, Benjamin I. et al. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2003 | Go to article overview

What Presidents Talk About: The Nixon Case


Jacobs, Lawrence R., Page, Benjamin I., Burns, Melanie, McAvoy, Gregory, Ostermeier, Eric, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Why do presidents talk at length about some policy issues, while ignoring others? Which issues do presidents emphasize in their public rhetoric, how do they talk about them, why, and with what effects? How do they divide their messages between oral and written modes? How often do they address different sorts of audiences, and on what kinds of issues?

The existing literature offers a number of provocative theories to account for presidential talk but has not conducted systematic and sustained research on the content and volume of presidential talk, particularly outside the much-analyzed State of the Union addresses and other major speeches (e.g., Cohen 1997). William Riker's (1996) general lament that "we do not know much substantively about how policies are presented [in public]" is particularly striking in the case of presidents, whose public comments are uniquely visible and can create a decisive strategic advantage (4). An important literature on the "rhetorical presidency" and the phenomenon of presidents "going public" has examined the president's increasing tendency over time toward appealing over the heads of Washingtonians to establish a direct and unmediated relationship with the mass public (Kernell 1997; Tulis 1987). Although this literature on the "public presidency" is valuable, little research has investigated precisely what sorts of policy issues presidents discuss, what audiences they address, and how and why their positions, emphasis, and framing of their statements on specific policy issues change over time (see, however, Hart 2000).

Hypotheses

Although presidency research on the actual substantive policy content of presidential talk during their terms in office has been limited, this research tradition does offer four hypotheses for explaining the rhetorical format, audience, policy domain, and variations in presidential talk. First, the modern "rhetorical presidency" is expected to appeal to the broad public by predominantly using the format of orally delivering a statement instead of depending on a written format (Tulis 1987). Second, presidents are often expected to "go public," bypassing the dynamics of bargaining and persuasion among elites in favor of talking to the general public, with addresses to elite audiences made up of business, labor, and government officials constituting a far smaller proportion of their attention (Kernell 1997). Third, there has been some (though not consistent) evidence that presidents face greater leeway on pursuing foreign than domestic policy and therefore enjoy greater success in this policy domain. The "two presidencies" in legislative politics, to the extent it exists, may motivate presidents to focus their attention and public talk on foreign policy rather than domestic affairs. There may be variations over time, though, with greater emphasis on domestic affairs as elections approach (as implied by performance-based models of American electoral politics; e.g., Fiorina 1981).

Fourth, the public presidency literature also offers two possible explanations for variations over time in the amount and content of presidential rhetoric. First, the "going public" literature suggests that presidents speak out when they seek policy changes but encounter resistance in Congress, the interest group community, news media, business, or from foreign powers (Kernell 1997; Rose 1988; Manheim 1994). According to this body of research, presidents calibrate their public rhetoric to serve as a strategic tool that moves external events--news media coverage, economic activities, and political developments. Indeed, talk from such a powerful world leader as the president of the United States, whether or not combined with other forms of action, may well influence the behavior of others at home and abroad, thus precipitating events domestically and on the world scene (Canes-Wrone 2001; Cohen 1997).

A second possible explanation for the variations in presidential rhetoric is that outside events influence presidential rhetoric. …

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