Presidential success in communicating with the public through televised addresses.

Author:Welch, Reed L.

One of the president's most conspicuous and potentially powerful uses of the bully pulpit is the televised address to the nation. With these addresses, the president has the opportunity to enter homes throughout America to speak to people directly, unfettered by the news media's questions, interpretations, and editing. The president's ability to speak to a nationwide audience has led many to believe the president has a disproportionate amount of power in leading the public and a subsequent advantage in working with other political actors. Televised addresses are often portrayed as the president's ultimate political weapon in shaping the nation's agenda, mobilizing public opinion, and building support for himself and the issue positions he espouses.

Although the potential for televised addresses to influence public opinion is tremendous, there are formidable obstacles that stand in the way of the president's leading the public through national addresses (see Edwards and Wayne 1997, 115-20). One of the major challenges the president must overcome is communicating his message to a potentially inattentive audience. For a televised address to influence public opinion on particular issues or policies, the president not only must attract an audience to watch the address but he must also communicate his ideas and preferences to the public so that people are aware of them. In other words, if the president wants to influence public opinion on issues such as health care reform, an energy proposal, or a tax cut, people must be attentive enough to understand the issues the president is discussing. Only after the president has attracted an audience and has successfully conveyed to the public his preferences about an issue can he influence the public on that particular issue (see Salomon and Cohen 1978; Price and Zaller 1993). If a president has been successful at getting people to watch his address and in communicating his message to them, people will be able to "recall or remember the information after exposure" (DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach 1989, 314). The more successful a president is, the more people there will be who recall points from the speech and the more information people will recall.

This article examines the president's success at using televised addresses to communicate his message to the public: How effective is the president at getting his message across to the public? With whom is he most effective? Why is the president more successful communicating his message to some rather than others?

To answer these questions, this study looks at the points people remember from televised addresses. It examines the number of people who remember points from televised addresses, who the people are who remember the points, how people who remember points differ from those who do not, and why some people remember points from a speech while others do not.

Examining People's Recall of Televised Presidential Addresses

Although the president must attract an audience and communicate his message to the public for televised addresses to directly influence public opinion, studies have not examined the president's ability to communicate his message to the public. Studies measuring the influence of televised addresses on public opinion have implicitly assumed that because televised addresses receive extensive news coverage and are typically given during primetime hours on network television, audience attention and the president's ability to communicate his message to the public are constant and are not important variables in assessing the influence of televised addresses on public opinion (e.g., Mueller 1973; Ragsdale 1984, 1987; Simon and Ostrom 1989; Brace and Hinckley 1993; Cohen 1995).

Yet, we know that the assumption that the audience is constant among televised addresses is not valid. Studies have examined the president's ability to attract an audience to watch televised addresses and have found that it is a more difficult feat for the president to accomplish than is usually recognized (Foote 1990; Baum and Kernell 1999; Welch 2000). There is substantial variation in the size of the audiences that different addresses attract (Welch 2000), and the growth of cable television and satellite dishes has led to the overall decline in the audience size for televised addresses, beginning with the Reagan presidency (Baum and Kernell 1999).

Just as the assumption about the audience for televised addresses has been shown to be false, it might also be the case that the assumption of the president's effectiveness at communicating his message to the public is false. Not only might the president be unable to communicate his message to those not exposed to an address, but it also might be the case that he is unsuccessful among those who are. If we are to understand the potential and limitations that televised addresses have on public opinion, it is necessary to examine the president's effectiveness at getting the public's attention and communicating his points to the public.


To measure the president's effectiveness at getting people to watch televised addresses and communicating his message to the public, this study uses a unique set of national opinion surveys conducted by Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan's pollster throughout Reagan's years in the White House. After four of President Reagan's nationally televised addresses from 1981 to 1983 (September 24, 1981; January 26, 1982; October 13, 1982; January 25, 1983), Wirthlin polls asked a randomly selected, nationwide sample whether they had watched or heard the addresses. To this respondents answered that they had either watched or heard all of an address, watched or heard part of the address, heard or read about the address afterward, or had not read or heard anything about the address. Those who said they were exposed to the address were then asked "what some of the major points of the speech were." This was an open-ended question, and respondents were asked to give up to three answers. They could give any response they wanted, regardless of its accuracy. The polls were conducted within a few days after the addresses were given. (1)

The validity of recall data. Although some have questioned the use of recall data and have argued that it underestimates the influence that information can have (Hastie and Park 1986; Lichtenstein and Srull 1987; Hastie and Pennington 1989; Lodge, Steenbergen, and Brau 1995), Wirthlin polls alleviate many of the problems often associated with recall data. First, respondents in the Wirthlin polls did not have to remember the addresses for long. The surveys were not asking people to recall points from a speech two months later or even two weeks later. Instead, respondents were asked either the night of the address or the next few nights following the address what points they remembered. In addition, the topics covered in televised addresses are usually not new and were not new in the four addresses in this sample (as is discussed below). Reagan had been talking about some of these issues for many years.

Another concern is whether survey data underestimate respondents' recollections, who, in their rush to get through the poll questions as quickly as possible, may have answered that they did not remember anything from the speech without even trying to recall anything. However, even though it may have been easier or quicker to not try to recall a point from a speech, respondents would have felt some pressure from themselves to give an answer. Right before they were asked about their recall, they had responded that they had either watched or heard the address or had heard or read about it after it was given. After having said they were exposed to the address, respondents would not have wanted to appear stupid and would have tried to recall something from the address to which they had just said they had been exposed.

Reagan's televised addresses. The main focus of all four addresses was the economy and the administration's plans to right the economy. Two of the addresses were state of the union addresses (January 26,1982; January 25,1983). The state of the union addresses were longer than the other two speeches in this sample (2) and, like all state of the union addresses, included a laundry list of administration achievements and proposals. In all four speeches, there were numerous, clearly identifiable points people could have recalled.

The September 24, 1981, speech discussed Reagan's program for economic recovery. It was the fifth televised address he had given, but the political circumstances for this one were different. With high interest rates and the economy threatening to enter into a recession, his political support in Congress was waning. Republicans were divided in their support of Reagan's economic plans, and key Democrats were no longer as eager to follow the president as they had been earlier in the year (Broder 1981; Lescaze 1981; Weisman 1981). With the speech, Reagan hoped to build public and congressional support for his economic initiatives, particularly for further budget cuts in an effort to balance the budget by 1984.

The January 26, 1982, address, Reagan's first state of the union address, was devoted to the economy and federalism. He spoke of his first-year accomplishments in cutting the federal budget, cutting taxes, reducing regulations, combating waste and fraud, and strengthening the nation's defense. He promised to continue working in those areas and attempted to squelch talk of lowering the budget deficit by raising taxes or reneging on the tax cuts passed by Congress the year before. He also promised a massive shift of responsibilities between the federal and state governments by proposing to turn over more than forty programs administered by the federal government to the states. It was a speech that should have sounded familiar to people. As Lou Cannon (1982) wrote in the next day's paper, "President Reagan reached back...

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