Presidents and the People: the Partisan Story of Going Public.

Author:Milkis, Sidney M.
Position:Book Review

By Mel Laracey. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002. 267 pp.

Presidents and the People explores the deep historical roots of popular presidential leadership. Laracey challenges the view, made prominent by scholars such as Jeffrey Tulis, James Caeser, and Samuel Kernell, that White House efforts to rouse public opinion in support of presidential programs mark a fundamental and problematic transformation of the executive. As Tulis has framed this idea, the Constitution of 1787 proscribed popular leadership; the "rhetorical presidency," born of the progressive leadership of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, prescribed it. This change has had a dramatic effect on American government, Tulis argues, investing it with greater energy but at the risk of denigrating policy deliberation and exposing the country to popular demagogy.

In contrast, Laracey contends that presidents since Thomas Jefferson have sought to amplify their power by going directly to the people. Andrew Jackson, who made popular presidential leadership respectable, not Wilson or TR, was the critical figure in the development of "going public." Encouraged by a highly mobilized and competitive two-party system, nineteenth-century presidents "frequently managed to engage in a form of going public--communicating their policy positions rather clearly to the American public," without making many speeches and in the absence of modern forms of mass communication (p. 6). By looking at a "forgotten" form of presidential communication, the presidential newspaper, Laracey shows that from 1800 to 1860, every president supported a Washington newspaper that was known to reflect the administration's policy views. Even with the demise of presidential newspapers after the Civil War, nineteenth-century presidents sought to convey their programs to the people through a dense network of local and state party organizations and newspapers that enabled chief executives to communicate with the public and mobilize popular support.

The rise of the popular presidency under the auspices of Jacksonian Democrats did not mark a regime change, Laracey insists; rather, going public is but a "modern manifestation of a philosophy that was present at the founding, represented most visibly in aspects of the Anti-federalist and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican movements." The champions of popular leadership challenged and eventually succeeded in displacing the Federalists' "classicist" philosophy...

To continue reading