Politics or policy? How rhetoric matters to presidential leadership of congress.

Author:Villalobos, Jose D.

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. Early landmark studies in this literature found that presidential attempts to lead Congress are indeed tied to key political and structural ties between the White House and Capitol Hill; in particular, factors like partisanship, ideology, and public approval of presidential performance shape the extent to which members of Congress support the president's agenda (e.g., Bond and Fleisher 1980, 1990; Bond, Fleisher, and Wood 2003; Cohen et al. 2000; Edwards 1980, 1989; Edwards, Barrett, and Peake 1997; Fleisher and Bond 1983, 1984, 1992, 2004; Rivers and Rose 1985; Ostrom and Simon 1985). Such determinations were important for helping to reshape the landscape of empirical studies of interbranch relations; however, they did not directly evaluate the persuasive element of Neustadt's original contention.

At the same time that scholars were investigating the systemic determinants of presidential success in Congress, others were examining the rise of a new model of presidential leadership. In 1986, Samuel Kernell established the still-dominant conception of the "going public" model of presidential leadership, in which presidents lead not by going down Pennsylvania Avenue and up to Capitol Hill, but rather by going over the heads of the legislative branch and communicating directly with the American people, in the hopes that building public support for their programs will engender subsequent congressional acquiescence (see also Tulis 1987). Kernell's argument was complemented with significant descriptive evidence that presidents were continuously engaged in this exercise, though there has been little evidence that these populist gambits have been effective (see, however, Page and Shapiro 1984, 1992; Welch 2003a, 2003b). Rather, Edwards (2003) has shown the pathology of this going public model, finding that presidents rarely move public opinion in support of their preferred initiatives and are as likely to see their efforts backfire. Instead, he counsels a model of "staying private," where presidents and members of Congress can collaborate in a way that prizes coalition-building over conflict expansion, thus achieving policy change without the distraction of parading positions before the electorate (see also Covington 1987). Subsequent works by Canes-Wrone (2001, 2004, 2006) and Rottinghaus (2009, 2010) have shown that presidential efforts to manipulate public opinion can affect policy change, but only under certain specific conditions (see also Powell and Schloyer 2003); nevertheless, as politics in Washington have grown more polarized (see Bond and Fleisher 2000; Fleisher and Bond 2004; Theriault 2006, 2008), these moments have become increasingly elusive. Elsewhere, Eshbaugh-Soha (2006, 2010) indicates that what is truly important in shaping legislative policy success is the president's usage of signaling as a way of making clear his priorities and preferences on passage and implementation (see also Fett 1994). Ultimately, these conclusions serve more as a complement to Edwards' overarching critique, rather than a refutation of it.

In this study, we attempt to reconcile this diverse range of views about the nature and influence of presidential messages. Many of these views have received limited or no direct empirical testing, and no works we know of have considered them in direct comparison with one another. As we address this oversight, we are particularly interested in determining not just whether presidential efforts to persuade are linked with congressional action, but how. (2) We argue that presidents ground policy proposals in four key ways, each of which taps a different rhetorical vein. Determining which of these rhetorical approaches yields cooperative congressional action will help to uncover whether and when members of Congress are susceptible to presidential discourse, which in turn should increase our understanding about the nature of the president's power to persuade.

Contending Explanations for Why Congress Listens

As political situations shift and policy contexts change, so do the president's constraints and incentives. We contend that a strategic president will adjust his rhetoric accordingly. In particular, a president's choice of rhetorical strategy may be conditioned by the dynamics of his environment, rendering messages from one category more useful at one moment, less so at another. (3) Below, we introduce four separate categories of presidential messages, generating hypotheses based on the logic of our theoretical argument and the accumulated scholarly knowledge of the relevant literature. (4) These four categories represent possible messages across two rhetorical dimensions important to presidential-congressional communication: political tone and policy substance. Specifically, the first two categories of presidential messages--mandate rhetoric and bipartisan appeals--are anchored in political messages designed to convince legislators to support the president for reasons linked to public considerations, while the second two categories--signaling volume and agency input--draw attention to the amount of emphasis placed on policy initiatives and substantive expertise involved in the crafting of bills under consideration.

Mandate Rhetoric

The first category of appeals, mandate rhetoric, concerns the president's rhetorical embrace of electoral logic. This type of message is in some ways the inverse of the going public model put forward by Kernell (1986). That is, rather than going to the public to sell a message...

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