Presidents and Agendas
It is not surprising that analyses of national policymaking stress the role of the president. The media focus attention on the White House as the center of decision making. Presidents represent the nation in international negotiations. And much of the national policy process is designed to flow to and through the White House. But it stands to reason that presidential participation in national policymaking and implementation will vary with changing political, policy, and personal conditions. Therefore it is not sufficient simply to declare that the president is important. That we know. Instead, we need to understand the varying conditions under which the president participates in the policy process.
In this chapter I concentrate on agenda setting, a crucial activity in which presidents presumably are heavily engaged. One major purpose of the analysis is to place the president in a broader policy context. An associated purpose is to explore agenda setting and related concepts.
Here is the problem. Conventional wisdom on the role of the president in agenda setting does not always accommodate common knowledge about the workings of our government. The standard view stresses presidential preeminence in determining the policy agenda. Richard Neustadt states that "congressmen need an agenda from outside, something with high status to respond to or react against. What provides it better than the program of the president?"1 John W. Kingdon concludes that "there is plenty of confirmation in [my] interviews that the president can singlehandedly set the agendas, not only of people in the executive branch, but also of people in Congress and outside of government."2 And Paul C. Light, in the most comprehensive analysis of presidential agendas, finds that the president's agenda "determines the distribution of political benefits; it is a signal to the Congress and the public of national needs; it carries the president's vision of the past and the future." 3 One might