Politics or Policy? How Rhetoric Matters to Presidential Leadership of Congress

By Villalobos, Jose D.; Vaughn, Justin S. et al. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Politics or Policy? How Rhetoric Matters to Presidential Leadership of Congress


Villalobos, Jose D., Vaughn, Justin S., Azari, Julia R., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Three days after his historic inauguration, Barack Obama communicated the following message to then-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and other Republican congressional leaders on Capitol Hill: "I won" (Calmes and Herszenhorn 2009). (1) Thirteen months later, at a bipartisan health care summit in February 2010, President Obama responded in similar fashion to a charge from his former electoral opponent, Senator John McCain, about the way deals were being struck in exchange for support on Obama's health care reform legislation. Obama provided McCain with a reminder that "the election's over," the implicit refrain continuing from his comment a year hence to Cantor that he had won and that his victory brought with it the kind of moral legitimacy that could only be bestowed by popular electoral referendum (Negrin and Hunt 2010).

Before the end of the year, however, President Obama was delivering his policy statements to members of Congress in a significantly different key, if not an altogether new tune. As the lame duck congressional session following the 2010 midterm elections proceeded--an election in which the president's party took a "shellacking," as Obama phrased it in a somber day-after press conference--the president's mandate-oriented rhetoric was replaced by calls to support new legislation on bipartisan terms. Amid these calls for bipartisan cooperation, the president's post--midterm rhetoric seemed to extol the normative virtues of cooperative policy making on issues like tax cut extensions and health care support for 9/11 Ground Zero responders as much as it did the policy substance of the legislative proposals.

Why did the president's rhetoric change so much in such a relatively short span of time? The answer to this question seems rather simple: the president's political context changed, and as his standing with the public declined and the electoral fortunes of his opponents overwhelmingly improved, Obama realized he had to change tactics. This interpretation underscores a long-held assumption embraced by presidents, pundits, and political scientists alike: the way presidents talk about legislation and talk to members of Congress matters. Recent scholarship, however, has weakened our faith in this assumption and provided new avenues for further examination. Here, we endeavor to determine not only whether presidential policy messages shape presidential legislative fortunes but how. Specifically, we ask whether rhetoric that highlights the president's standing with the electorate or champions a call to bipartisan comity matters when advancing the president's political agenda or if legislative success has more to do with the policy substance of a proposal and the manner it is communicated within a presidential message. In other words, do rhetorical strategies improve presidential success in Congress, or are legislators listening for more tangible, substantive cues about the content and quality of the policy initiatives proposed to them?

To answer this question, we analyze the impact that four different types of presidential messages have on congressional action. In particular, we consider presidential messages that include the use of mandate rhetoric, bipartisan appeals, signaling, and agency input. In doing so, we extend arguments made previously in the scholarly literature concerning presidential influence in Congress and, for the first time, simultaneously test various key assumptions that scholars had not previously considered in unison. For example, Bond and Fleisher (1990, 230) argue that "The president's greatest influence of policy comes from the agenda he pursues and the way it is packaged," a statement that reflects Quirk's (1991) contention that presidential legislative success depends on how policy proposals are designed. What remains to be determined, however, is the extent to which different kinds of presidential messages influence congressional action differently.

An Evolving Understanding of Presidential-Congressional Communication

Since Richard Neustadt's (1960) observation that, in a system of separated institutions sharing powers, presidents lack the power to command Congress to act in a manner consistent with the chief executive's preferences, presidency scholars have brought ever-more nuanced theoretical arguments and increasingly sophisticated analytical tools to the task of determining how exactly presidents wield their alleged power to persuade. …

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