Presidents yearn for greatness. They take heroic decisions against long odds to earn the reverence of later generations and cement their "standing in history."
The modern presidential compulsion to demonstrate heroic mastery stems, in part, from Lord Bryce's adulation of "great men" in his 1888 masterpiece, The American Commonwealth (Bryce 1906), and his lament that so few of America's most talented rise to its highest office. Lord Bryce is credited not only with spotlighting a string of unimpressive nineteenth-century presidents during his time but also with anticipating (with exceptions) a half century "roll call of incompetence"--as Alan Wolfe (2002) put it--in which "mediocre ... [presidential] political leadership" by "undistinguished men" plummeted the country into costly, ill-advised adventures abroad and a bubble of financial speculation that set the conditions for an historic economic depression. Lord Bryce continues to cast a curse on modern presidents to prove him wrong and to dispel the suspicion that it was only their election that saved them from the deep recesses of historical obscurity.
Lord Bryce's challenge to presidents to prove their personal greatness reinforces the power conundrum in contemporary American politics: presidents enter office with enormous expectations among voters to take responsibility for the economy, U.S. interests abroad, and American politics, and, yet, they reside in a constitutional system that hamstrings them. Most presidents and political observers focus on meeting expectations by augmenting the authority the U.S. Constitution bestows on them or by circumventing its checks.
We disagree. Attempting to live up to inflated expectations by transcending entrenched constraints in an era of limits amounts to a kind of presidential Quixotism. The result is an abysmal track record as constitutional and political constraints grind through the conveyor belt of presidential aspirations.
But is there a feasible alternative governing model? Without the intercession of presidential greatness, how can America avoid the ungovernability that pundits warn will result from Madison's system of deadlock in an era of partisan polarization?
We argue for reverse-engineering America's power conundrum by seeking to moderate expectations and to work within constitutional boundaries. This approach drops the false and damaging standards of presidential greatness and properly values meaningful--if conflictual and incomplete--incremental progress on pressing challenges.
This article approaches America's power conundrum by initially focusing on the customary approach of modern presidents--routine, extravagant public promotions of policy and person (Kernell 1993). Instead of cooing over the scope and means of White House efforts to court public support, we tally the costs of public promotions on presidential power as it manifests itself in the countermobilization of the opposition, the media's lavishing of attention on presidential rivals, and the public's exposure to potent messages that undercut White House communications.
We begin by sketching the White House's reliance on public promotions to boost presidential power and satisfy voter expectations and then catalogue the limits and risks of White House efforts to "go public." To flesh out the downsides of public marketing, we analyze the responses of the opposition and the media since 1950 to the premier presidential promotion--the nationally televised State of the Union Address. We conclude by suggesting a more moderate--yet sustainable form of presidential public leadership that sheds the curse of Bryce and instead seeks to form sustainable coalitions that latch onto shared objectives.
Presidential Exuberance and Its Costs
How to augment the president's restricted constitutional powers to satisfy the high expectations of voters is the power puzzle that preoccupies modern presidents. Before Woodrow Wilson exchanged his academic robes for the Oval Office, he introduced what was a groundbreaking idea at the turn of the last century--that presidents should break from the quiet, insulated confines of Washington to engage directly with the mass public in order to stir coherent deliberation within Congress (Tulis 1987; Wilson 1885, 1908). What began in the opening of the twentieth century as an aid to reasoned and principled debate among lawmakers escalated by its last quarter to presidential communicative warfare--the planning and launching of elaborate schemes to exploit their unrivalled access to the mass public to dictate the policy-making agenda in Congress and convert the reluctant and opposed into a supportive legislative coalition to enact their objectives (Jacobs 2005, 2010; Kernell 1993; Tulis 1987). Changing motivations of presidents combined with an increasingly national communications system that grew from national newspapers to coast-to-coast radio and then television broadcasts. For presidents intent on augmenting their power, they turned to their singular opportunity to "go public" both directly and indirectly through the media's around-the-clock coverage (Kernell 1993).
The changing nature of executive power generated a new field of research on the "public presidency," which reported sweeping findings of White House influence on discrete components of the American political system (Ceaser et al. 1981; Edwards 1983). White House promotion impacts public opinion by setting its agenda of concerns (Barrels 1993; Behr and Iyengar 1985; Cohen 1995), influencing its preferences (Mondak 1993; Page, Shapiro, and Dempsey 1987), and lifting its evaluations of presidents (Brace and Hinckley 1993; MacKuen 1983; Ragsdale 1984; Simon and Ostrom 1989). Presidents also deploy their public appeals to influence Congress on their popular proposals (Barrett 2004; Canes-Wrone 2001). Another target is the press, which presidents are reported to influence even if control remains elusive (Paletz and Entman 1980).
The strong effects of "going public" that were reported by the first generation of public presidency research appeared to offer a partial remedy to the president's power puzzle. The White House's unrivaled opportunity to talk to the nation generated new sources of influence that equipped the president to advance his policy agenda and political interests.
New waves of research identify, however, three limitations with the strong effects account of the public presidency.
Questions about the Empirical Effects of "Going Public"
The first and most direct set of criticisms challenged the magnitude and statistical significance of the initial claims of presidential impact (Edwards 1996). The president's impact in setting the agenda of Congress and the mass media is less than the "strong effects" generation suggested. One study found that "most of the time the president reacts, responding primarily to fluctuations in media attention and world events" (Edwards and Wood 1999). The president's impact on the media has been "impede[d]" (Cohen 2004, 493) by the advent of cable television and "informational interdependence" (Jacobs and Shapiro 2011, 5) created by social media, which has reduced the size of the White House's audience and its ability to shape the information it receives (Baum and Kernell 1999, see also).
A growing body of research also questions the impact of the "public presidency" on public opinion (Young and Perkins 2005). In addition to targeted studies of presidential ineffectiveness in going public (e.g., Edwards 2007), research on public opinion questions a core assumption of presidential marketing--that the public is available to be "rallied." A number of studies have found that the public's fundamental policy preferences are fairly stable over long periods of time and are generally resistant to short-term manipulation (Kuklinski and Segura 1995; Page and Shapiro 1992). Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro's The Rational Public (1992) meticulously traced public attitudes toward a wide spectrum of policies from education and health care to defense spending since the origins of scientific surveys in the 1930s; they found little meaningful change, and the change that did occur typically responded to new information or developments. In other words, when a president grabs the Bully Pulpit, they are staring out at an audience with set attitudes.
In addition, careful research demonstrates that individuals think for themselves and are not easy prey as assumed by White House strategists (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000). Individuals rely on a host of mechanisms to form and review their policy attitudes. Some rely on interpersonal communications and taking cognitive shortcuts by following news anchors or experts covered in the press. Others gather information through more cognitively taxing efforts (such as reading the 9/11 Commission Report or closely following press reports). Like shoppers combing through a bin for the best tomatoes, individuals sort through information and messages to develop their own interpretations of presidential initiatives. They draw on personal experiences and interactions with peers--as filtered through their education, political awareness, and partisan attitudes (Gamson 1992; Neuman, Just, and Crigler 1992; Popkin 1994; Zaller 1992).
Going Public at the Margins
Presidential influence on Congress often occurs "at the margins" because the partisan composition of legislators and institutional rules overshadows whatever personal skill presidents can muster (Edwards 1989). A similar dynamic faces White House efforts to go public: while presidential efforts to move public opinion are generally constrained by the stable nature of public opinion as well as elite dissensus and press attention to it, presidents can exercise two subtle forms of influence that fall short of dominance but nonetheless offer selective and conditional opportunities. First, if the White House can successfully direct what the public focuses on or...