Decreasing the economy's impact on evaluations of the president: an experiment on attribution framing.

Author:Newman, Brian
Position:Polls and Elections - Report

In December 2007, the United States entered the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. (1) As the economy contracted, unemployment rose from 4.7% in late 2007 to 7.8% by January, 2009. That same month, Barack Obama was inaugurated. Two years later, the economy was officially out of recession, but fears of a "double dip" recession remained, and unemployment had climbed to almost 10%. In December 2010, 81% of the public thought national economic conditions were "very bad" or "fairly bad" while a mere 0.2% thought conditions were "very good." (2) Most agreed that things were bad, but how much did these perceptions of the economy shape public evaluations of Obama?

Research on public evaluations of the president has consistently found that economic considerations are a primary driver of these evaluations (e.g., Brace and Hinckley 1991; Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002; Kernell 1978; McAvoy 2006; Mueller 1973; Newman 2002; Ostrom and Simon 1985). However, research has also shown that events, news coverage, and elite discourse can increase the weight of various considerations on evaluations via a process known as priming or framing (e.g., Druckman and Holmes 2004; Edwards, Mitchell, and Welch 1995; Iyengar and Kinder 1987; Kelleher and Wolak 2006; Krosnick and Brannon 1993; Krosnick and Kinder 1990; Miller and Krosnick 2000). In particular, this line of research shows that when news stories, dramatic events, or elite rhetoric focus on a particular topic, like the economy or terrorism, individuals tend to weigh considerations relating to that topic more heavily in their evaluations of the president. However, few studies explore the possibility that the same kind of messages could decrease the weight of a consideration on an evaluation.

Of course, presidents often have incentives to try to decrease the weight of unfavorable considerations in public evaluations (Jacobs and Shapiro 1994). The Obama administration worked diligently to convince the public that it inherited the faltering economy, implying that the state of the economy should not be the primary basis of evaluating Obama (e.g., Wilson 2009). Do such attempts to attribute blame somewhere other than the White House alter the criteria by which the public evaluates presidents?

The results of a survey experiment described below show that an attribution flame decreased the weight of economic considerations on evaluations of President Obama. The results highlight a politically and theoretically significant type of framing effect that has not received much attention. The findings are important because economic considerations consistently have a powerful effect on evaluations of the president (see Gronke and Newman 2009). If a message can dampen the strong connection between economic considerations and presidential evaluations, similar messages may prove powerful in other contexts where connections are not as strong. Furthermore, the effects reported here appear to have arisen primarily by the frame's capacity to increase a consideration's perceived applicability, not by simply raising considerations' accessibility in memory.

The article proceeds by discussing framing's impact on presidential evaluations. This discussion generates a hypothesis that is tested via the survey experiment. After describing the experiment and the results, I discuss what the results tell us about the psychology of framing effects. I close by examining the article's implications for the presidential accountability and presidential success in Congress.

Framing, Attribution Frames, and Evaluations of Presidents

Most accounts of individuals' political attitudes, including evaluations of presidents (which I will call "presidential evaluations"), view attitudes toward an object as a weighted sum of a collection of considerations (e.g., Azjen and Fishbein 1980; Chong and Druckman 2007a). As noted above, studies of framing and priming demonstrate that by emphasizing a certain consideration, various stimuli (e.g., a speech) can increase the weight of a consideration on presidential evaluations (e.g., Druckman and Holmes 2004). Chong and Druckman (2007a, 107) explicitly define framing effects in these terms: "a framing effect occurs when a communication increases the weight of a new or existing belief in the formation of one's overall attitude." This definition of framing implies that the phenomenon political scientists often call priming "is theoretically indistinguishable from framing" (Chong and Druckman 2007b, 640). Within the context of evaluations of presidents, Miller and Krosnick (2000, 301) provide a definition of priming that is equivalent to Chong and Druckman's definition of framing: "priming occurs when media attention to an issue causes people to place special weight on it when constructing evaluations of overall presidential job performance." Given the equivalence between the terms, I will refer to such effects as framing effects below.

Although plenty of evidence shows that framing effects occur, questions remain about the psychological mechanisms driving them. Early studies argued that framing effects were the result of making considerations accessible in memory (e.g., Iyengar and Kinder 1987; Krosnick and Kinder 1990). For example, Krosnick and Kinder (1990) argued that individuals evaluating presidents typically do not think through the implications of every possible consideration but instead "generally focus only on the aspects of their knowledge that happen to be most accessible at the time of judgment" (499). Thus, a communication like a news story makes a consideration accessible to an individual, and when she is asked for a judgment, the consideration automatically comes to mind and is therefore emphasized in making the judgment.

More recently, attention has focused on whether considerations made accessible by a stimulus are judged to be applicable to the evaluation at hand. Some have suggested that framing effects require that (or are at least enhanced when) considerations are not just accessible in memory but are deemed applicable (e.g., Althaus and Kim 2006; Chong and Druckman 2007b; Miller and Krosnick 2000; see also Miller 2007). In this view, framing is a two-step process that is not automatic. First, a stimulus makes a consideration accessible. Then, if the consideration is deemed applicable to a particular judgment, it is given greater weight in that judgment. If the accessible consideration is not deemed applicable, it is not given greater weight.

The psychological mechanisms underlying framing effects hold significant political implications. Presidents tend to emphasize favorable conditions and shift their public rhetoric away from negative conditions (e.g., Druckman, Jacobs, and Ostermeier 2004; Jacobs and Shapiro 1994). However, opposition politicians or aggressive journalists will sometimes force presidents to comment on unfavorable conditions. When this happens, presidents may try to convince the public that the problem is someone else's fault. If accessibility alone can create a framing effect, saying "I am not to blame" for negative conditions will not help a president. Such a message will make the negative considerations accessible and therefore more influential on the public's evaluations. On the other hand, if considerations must be seen as applicable to affect evaluations, effectively framing attribution away from the president would decrease the weight of the unfavorable consideration.

More broadly, the psychological routes by which framing works can shape the degree to which presidents affect mass opinion. Framing effects based entirely on accessibility imply an automatic process: a communication makes a consideration accessible, and then individuals weight that consideration more heavily in evaluations. Such an automatic process can turn individuals into passive "victims" (Iyengar and Kinder 1987, 90) of framing whose opinions are based on whatever considerations presidents make accessible. In contrast, citizens who assess the applicability of considerations, disregarding those deemed inapplicable to the evaluation at hand, will be less vulnerable to presidential framing.

One way to discriminate between the two potential routes for framing effects is to test whether a frame stating that a consideration is not applicable can decrease the weight of a consideration. If an individual hears that Obama is not responsible for economic conditions, this message raises the accessibility of economic considerations. At the same time, the message suggests that when evaluating Obama, one should not rely heavily on those economic considerations. Thus, the frame makes the consideration more accessible but less applicable. If framing works primarily through accessibility, such a message should increase the weight of economic considerations on overall evaluations. However, if framing effects require a consideration to be both accessible and applicable, then such a message should decrease the weight of economic considerations.

Studies have seldom asked whether a message that emphasizes a particular consideration can decrease that consideration's weight. A few studies that focus on other questions present bits of evidence suggesting that frames can decrease a consideration's weight. For example, Druckman and Nelson (2003) employed a frame arguing that when evaluating campaign finance reform, protecting free speech is more important than limiting the power of special interests. Subjects who encountered this frame considered the influence of special interest groups less important in thinking about campaign finance reform compared to those in a control group. Other studies find that messages emphasizing one consideration (e.g., terrorism) can decrease the weight of another consideration (e.g., education) not emphasized (Druckman and Holmes 2004; Kinder and Krosnick 1990).

I know of only one study that examines whether a frame emphasizing a...

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