The Provisional Pulpit: Modern Presidential Leadership of Public Opinion. By Brandon Rottinghaus. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010. 318 Pp.
Under what conditions is presidential leadership of public opinion most likely to succeed? This is the central question guiding The Provisional Pulpit. Rottinghaus offers an important response to recent work by presidency scholars, most notably, George Edwards (e.g., On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit, Yale University Press, 2003), that questions a central tenet of the modern presidency--that presidential leadership involves persuasion of the public. While presidency scholars have labored under the expectation that there are certain moments, which lend to success, much of the research to this point is limited by its analysis of just a few presidents, a limited number of issues, or of a single communications strategy.
Rottinghaus takes a different approach, and the payoff provides valuable insights for scholars. He uses a random sample of 665 presidential policy statements, matching each statement with surveys of public opinion, for the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower through Bill Clinton. The study avoids many of the problems inherent in current presidency research that relate to case selection, which allows for generalizable statements regarding presidential leadership. While some readers may become frustrated with the hedging that comes along with large cross-sectional studies, the book provides four chapters (Chapters 5-8) of case studies focused on both successful and failed attempts at presidential leadership of opinion, using archival data from various presidential libraries. The case studies are informed by the aggregate findings and will help the reader navigate what is, at times, a dizzying array of quantitative findings. Another positive of the book is its rather simple theory of conditional leadership. The president's leadership success is largely dependent upon the number and impact of "countervailing elements" p. (20). From this basic theory, Rottinghaus derives eleven testable hypotheses related to the president's political environment (e.g., approval ratings, the presence of divided government, etc.); political time (e.g., election years, time in office, etc.); communications strategies (e.g., televised addresses, going local, and press conferences); and issue-specific factors (e.g., foreign policy, issue salience, and the level of public knowledge).