Presidential attention focusing in the global arena: the impact of international travel on foreign publics.

Author:Cohen, Jeffrey E.

Presidents allocate a large proportion of their time and energy to foreign affairs. In pursuing their foreign policy goals, presidents (and their secretaries of state) have increased their travel to other nations since the end of the Second World War. Figure 1 plots the annual number of foreign trips by U.S. presidents from 1946 to 2011. From a handful of country visits during the mid-twentieth century, by the 2000s presidents routinely visit one and a half dozen nations per year, a sixfold increase from the 1950s. Secretaries of state are globally even more peripatetic than presidents, with an average of fifty-one nations visited per year in the 2000s, compared to a dozen in the 1950s. (1)

On these visits, presidents meet with foreign leaders, performing classic diplomatic activities such as attending formal negotiation meetings that are held in secret. But now presidents also routinely appear in public when visiting other nations. For instance, presidents now commonly hold joint press conferences and public announcements with the leader of the foreign nation, give interviews with foreign journalists, visit locations of local symbolic importance, and directly address the local citizenry. As one prominent example, on August 3, 2009, President Obama held a U.S. campaign-style town hall meeting in Strasbourg, France, with French citizens. Goldsmith and Horiuchi (2009) have dubbed these public activities "high-level public diplomacy."


High-level public diplomacy activities resemble "going public" techniques that presidents use in domestic politics and policy making (Kernell 1993). Domestic going public is predicated upon a two-step process. First, through public activities, like making speeches, presidents try to rally or mobilize public opinion around an issue. Then presidents use that activated public opinion to pressure members of Congress to enact their policy initiatives (Canes-Wrone 2006). A large literature has investigated the effects of presidential going public on domestic public opinion and Congress, finding mixed effects on both. In the domestic arena, presidential going public is far from consistently effective. (2)

In several respects, high-level public diplomacy efforts parallel those for domestic going public. First, like domestic going public, public diplomacy activities target foreign public opinion, with the aim of improving the image of the United States, opinion concerning an international issue, and/or the president. The administration's hope is that an improved foreign public opinion climate can be used as a resource in negotiating with the leaders of the other nation, to increase the likelihood that the president will realize his foreign policy goals vis-a-vis the visited nation. An underlying assumption of high-level public diplomacy appears to be that foreign leaders are responsive to public opinion pressures within their own country, like members of Congress and the president are thought to be responsive to U.S. voters.

Currently, there is only a limited literature on high-level public diplomacy. Several early studies have looked at what was then termed presidential "going international" (Rose 1988; Smith 1997). These studies focused on the logic of why presidents increasingly go international in the post--Cold War era (Rose 1988) and tracked trends in presidential going international activities like foreign trips (Smith 1997). A more recent literature has turned its attention to the effectiveness of high-level public diplomacy on foreign public opinion and support for U.S. policies. Several studies find that such public diplomatic efforts can affect foreign public opinion, at least under some conditions (Dragojlovic 2011, 2013; Goldsmith and Horiuchi 2009). Furthermore, the climate of public opinion in the foreign nation is associated with greater support for U.S. positions on foreign policy issues, for instance, on roll-call voting in the United Nations (Datta, 2009; Goldsmith and Horiuchi 2012).

One of the major barriers to assessing the effectiveness of high-level public diplomacy, especially on public opinion, is the dearth of cross-national data on public opinion about the United States, its policies, and the president. (3) Moreover, the extant literature has not investigated all of the causal steps from a presidential visit to foreign public opinion. This article asks whether a presidential visit to a nation can focus public attention on the president. (4) The agenda-setting (McCombs and Shaw 1972) and political communication (Edwards 2006; Zaller 1992) literatures argue that prior to the president being able to influence public opinion targeted citizens must receive the president's communication. Can the president focus foreign public opinion on his communication to them? To test the presidential international attention focusing hypothesis, I construct a pooled cross-section time series of weekly Google searches for Barack Obama across forty-two nations during the president's first term. Analysis finds that, during the week of the president's visit, such searches increased by about 25%, indicating relatively potent attention focusing effects from a presidential visit.

This article proceeds as follows. First, I discuss agenda-setting and political communication theories as they pertain to presidential attention-focusing activities. Then I review the literature on high-level public diplomacy by American presidents and discuss why presidential trips to another nation should focus local public attention on the president. The following section presents the Google Trends data, which is followed by the analysis. The conclusion puts the findings into perspective and raises suggestions for future research.

Agenda Setting, Presidential Communications, and Attention Focusing

Early research on agenda setting has looked at the impact of news coverage on the public's issue priorities. That research found that when news organizations increase their reporting on specific issues or topics, those issues and topics would rise in the public's priority rankings (McCombs 2013; McCombs and Shaw 1972, 1993). Later research asked whether other communications, such as major presidential speeches like the State of the Union Address, can also affect the public's issue priorities (Cohen 1995; Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake 2011; Hill 1998). That research found that presidential public communications can influence public issue priorities but not issue preferences (Edwards 2006).

Priming appears to be one mechanism that accounts for these communication effects on the public's agenda. For a presidential message to affect public opinion, the voters must receive the message (Edwards 2006; Zaller 1992). Voters may learn about the president's speech directly, for instance, by watching it. They may also learn about the president's speech indirectly, from conversations with family, friends, coworkers, and so on. (Cohen 2010; Edwards 2006; Zaller 1992). Even with these two transmission mechanisms from the presidential speech to the vote, as Edwards details, in modern American politics, there are many barriers to voters receiving presidential communications (Edwards 2006; see also Baum and Kernell 1999; Kernell and Rice 2011). For instance, Young and Perkins (2005) show that as the audience for major presidential addresses has decreased in size, the effect of the president's public rhetoric on the public's issue agenda has also weakened. Contemporary presidents seem less able to affect the public agenda of American voters than was the case a generation ago.

In contrast to public communication from the president to domestic audiences, which are frequent and routine, a presidential trip to a foreign nation is rare and special. Presidents do not travel to each nation every year, and most nations will receive at most one visit during the entire time a president is in office. Because such trips by the president to the overwhelming number of nations are rare, the news media in the visited country will report on the trip with high volumes of news coverage. Politicians and other elites in the visited nation may also want to take credit for the president visiting their nation and perhaps have some of the prestige of an American president passed onto them. To do so, local political leaders, especially heads of state, may orchestrate events that show them in the president's company. These attributes of a presidential trip to a foreign nation increase the likelihood that large numbers of citizens in the visited nation will become aware of, and perhaps even interested in, the president's visit. This broadscale awareness lays the foundation for potential presidential influence over foreign public opinion.

High-Level Public Diplomacy and Attention Focusing of Foreign Public Opinion

There is empirical evidence that, under certain conditions, high-level public diplomacy by the president, and the secretary of state, can influence foreign public opinion. Goldsmith and Horiuchi (2009), for example, find that presidential, and secretary of state, visits are associated with a more positive image of the United States, as long as the public in the host country views the United States as credible and trustworthy. (5) Once that credibility begins to flag, visits may no longer influence foreign public opinion. And if the United States or the president is viewed as "noncredible," high-level diplomatic visits may actually heighten negative attitudes toward the United States (Goldsmith and Horiuchi 2009). Dragojlovic (2011) employs an experiment on Canadian college students, adding support to the Goldsmith and Horiuchi (2009) perspective. When presented with an Obama prime shortly after his inauguration, when Obama enjoyed high credibility, treated subjects in the experiment displayed more positive attitudes toward the United States than nontreated subjects. However, if exposed to a George W. Bush prime, when Bush's credibility was weak,...

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