The polls: can presidential rhetoric affect the public's economic perceptions?

Author:Cohen, Jeffrey E.

A small but important literature has found that major presidential speeches may improve the level of public approval toward the president under certain conditions (Ragsdale 1984, 1987; Brace and Hinckley 1992). (1) Ragsdale (1984, 980) reports that each major speech lifts presidential approval by about 3 percentage points. In a refinement, Brace and Hinckley (1992) find that major speeches during a president's first term will boost his popularity by about 6 percentage points (p. 56) but will display no impact during the second term (p. 60). Ostrom and Simon (1989) and Simon and Ostrom (1989) argue that speeches will have an impact on approval under limited conditions and find that the public responds with greater levels of approval for the president only when an approval-enhancing event accompanies the speech. All agree, though, that when popularity boosts occur, they are short-lived, disappearing almost as fast as they arrived. (2)

This influential literature has laid an important foundation for understanding the impact of presidential speeches on public opinion but leaves important terrain on the topic unexplored. First, published studies may not have paid enough attention to how major speeches should be classified. We argue below that different types of speeches may have different impacts on public opinion. Thus, while Brace and Hinckley (1992, 95) distinguish between foreign policy and non-foreign-policy speeches, they bundle foreign policy speeches with other foreign policy activities; they do not compare the impact of foreign policy speeches on public opinion with other types of speeches, which we do below. Simon and Ostrom (1989, 76) offer a more refined categorization of speeches, five types based on their content, but they do not suggest why one would expect the different types of speeches to affect public opinion differently. In any event, they detect no differences in impact on public opinion across their speech types. Theoretically, more work needs to be devoted to conceptualizing the linkages between speech type and public opinion. We argue that foreign policy speeches will have greater impact on the public than other types, for instance, economic or domestic policy speeches, because foreign policy ones are better at portraying the president as a strong leader, a public image that is necessary for presidential leadership of public opinion.

Also, current studies focus almost exclusively on public support for the president as the dependent variable. Boosting public support is important to presidents, but it is not the only aspect of public opinion that presidents would like to influence. Speech effect studies may benefit by exploring the effects of speeches on other aspects of public opinion important to presidents. As Kernell (1993) argues, presidents also "go public" to alter public thinking about policies or to influence public impressions of the president. Hinckley (1990) stresses the symbolic aspects of presidential speech, and Cohen (1995, 1997) shows that presidential speech may be used to influence the public's agenda. Presidents may also speak to affect the public's mood, such as its orientation toward the future, its sense of optimism or pessimism, our topic in this article.

Finally, analyses may benefit from conceptualizing popularity other than as the dependent variable or ultimate end of speech making. Critics often complained that Ronald Reagan, for instance, tried to instill a "false" sense of well-being and future optimism in citizens. However, one may argue that Reagan might have calculated that an optimistic public would allow him greater latitude in policy choice and would be more likely to follow his lead. He might have further calculated that his ability to foster a sense of optimism would be greatest when he was popular with the public. Hence, instilling an atmosphere of optimism was part of his overall leadership strategy, and he used his popularity to instill such optimism.

In this article, we analyze the impact of presidential speeches on public expectations about the economy. We argue that economic expectations can be viewed as a general indicator of public optimism/pessimism about the future, a dimension of public opinion important to presidents. We classify speeches into three major types (economic, domestic, and foreign), hypothesizing that foreign policy speeches made when presidents are popular provide the best occasion for instilling a sense of public optimism about the future.

A Model of Presidential Speech Making Effects on Public Opinion

Our model is based on several widely held propositions in the literature that concern expectations for presidential leadership, the obstacles that must be overcome to provide that leadership, and the tactics that presidents may employ to surmount them. Presidents "go public" to affect public thinking about a host of political objects and subjects such as the president's own standing in the polls, policy initiatives, and evaluations of the state of the nation.

Strong forces impel such presidential leadership efforts, including public expectations for presidential leadership (Wayne 1982) and congressional expectations that the president help that branch set its agenda. Moreover, evaluations of presidents are rooted in their effectiveness as leaders and what they accomplish in office. Plus, the president's legacy and place in history depend on his leadership and ability to get his policies implemented.

The institutional context in which the president finds himself inhibits his ability to fulfill these expectations for leadership and in part underlie his efforts to mold public opinion. Jones (1994) offers a perspective for understanding the institutional context of the presidency and the implications of that context for presidential behavior. He argues that our system is a "separated" one. Separation of powers and checks and balances, which allow the legislature to block and frustrate presidential actions, are examples of that separation. So even though the public expects presidential leadership, separation between the branches makes leadership difficult and problematic for the president and limits the president's ability to direct public policy.

Thus, a gap exists between what is expected of the president and the power that he possesses (Waterman 1993). Consequently, presidents look for ways to supplement their political resources to enhance their political influence and policy leadership. One way is to mobilize public support or otherwise create a climate of public opinion favorable to their leadership efforts (Kernell 1993).

Public Regard toward the Chief Executive

The likely success of speech making as a presidential leadership strategy rests in large part upon how the public perceives the president. The visibility of the president in the public mind serves as the foundation on which presidential influence over public opinion is built, and research shows that there is a "positivity bias" in how the public views the president (Greenstein 1974; Edwards and Wayne 1997, 98-104). (3) This positivity bias derives in part from the public's desire for strong presidential leadership. Strong presidential leadership helps to dispel public fears and unease about politics, policy, and the state of the nation. Presidents develop an image of strong leadership by appearing effective, decisive, and in control (Cronin and Genovese 1998). In other words, strong leadership promotes a sense of security or well-being within the mass public (Edelman 1974; Greenstein 1974).

Relying on the president for such security also implies that the public will follow the president, everything else being equal, when the public views the president as a strong leader; when a president loses or fails to create an image of strong leadership, his ability to lead the public diminishes. As we argue below, foreign policy speeches provide better opportunities to present a strong presidential leadership image than other types of speeches.

Speech Type and the Presidential Leadership Image

In the ensuing analysis, we categorize major speeches that focus on one topic into one of three types: economic, domestic, and foreign. Each type of speech is made under different circumstances. These differing circumstances affect the president's leadership image. Foreign policy speeches provide the best opportunity to enhance a president's leadership image. Economic policy speeches tend to be offered during times of economic stress. Presidents rarely go before the nation in a major economic speech to talk about how well things are going. Although presidents are likely to emphasize what they are doing on the economic policy front, generally their motivation to speak stems from weakness in the economy. Such economic problems undermine the presidential leadership image, implying perhaps a failure of presidential policy leadership, a president not up to the task of steering the economy toward prosperity. Presidents speak about the economy to try to restore their image by showing themselves taking action and being on top of the situation. Still, economic policy speeches contain some bad news even if the president tries to underplay the bad news with pronouncements about what he will do or is doing. The mixed message of economic policy speeches limits their effectiveness as vehicles for presidential influence of the mass public.

Similarly, domestic policy speeches are often stimulated by internal crises, which again undermine the image of strong, effective presidential leadership. During the January 1978 through December 1994 period, Reagan spoke about drug problems (September 14, 1986) and his troubled Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork (October 14, 1987). Bush spoke about drug abuse (September 5, 1989) and the Los Angeles riots (May 1, 1992). Clinton's sole major domestic policy speech during his first two years highlighted his health care reform proposal. Only one domestic...

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