The public presidency and disciplinary presumptions.

Author:Jacobs, Lawrence R.
 
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Doug Arnold (1982) distinguished between "overtilled" and "undertilled" areas of research in American politics. His purpose was to encourage a reallocation of scholarly labor from extensively studied areas with low and diminishing yields of new knowledge to fields that have "largely been abandoned, although they still offer great promise, [or have] ... never been well cultivated at all" (92).

Attention to the allocation of research labor needs to be complemented by scrutiny of another dimension--the harvesting and distribution of research outside fields and subfields to the broader discipline devoted to studying politics and policy. Though these research fields tend to produce veritable warehouses of findings, they are poorly understood or misapplied by scholars plowing different plots. In these cases, the misallocation problem that Arnold identified becomes compounded by a breakdown in the distribution system that delivers the fruits of labor to scholarly consumers. Gaps between the specialized research of particular fields or subfields (what I refer to as "field research") and broader disciplinary learning put researchers at risk of adopting assumptions and theoretical expectations about fields outside their areas of expertise that have been proven flawed or false. Such underharvesting raises questions about the way the political science community operates and the degree to which that community generates new knowledge through cumulative processes of learning and interaction.

The purpose of this article is to use research on the promotional presidency to stimulate a discussion about cross-field engagement and intellectual dialogue within political science. As an enormous body of research on the U.S. president's public promotions piles up, political observers and scholars outside the presidency field continue to mistakenly or incompletely interpret the research and, in cases where they do not draw on political science research at all, they have been prone to adopt unfounded assumptions. Initial critical assessments of Barack Obama's first term in office, and specifically his public promotion of health reform, illustrate this general pattern, and pose a revealing puzzle: Obama engaged in public promotion and his efforts failed to move public opinion or the legislative process. While Obama's sobering experience with health reform may be surprising to popular commentators and some political scientists, it is consistent (as I discuss shortly) with a large body of presidency research--throwing the underharvesting challenge into relief.

Understanding the conditional nature of presidential promotion requires appreciation for the interaction of agency and structure. White House appeals for public support often collide with structural constraints cemented into America's institutional and informational systems. Yet, institutions and interests also open up choices for strategic presidents who can adjust to lure allies and skillfully persuade them to deploy their institution resources to serve the president's agenda.

This article has two objectives. The first is to use the Obama health reform episode to underscore the misunderstanding of public presidency research outside the field. To be clear, though, this is not a study of health reform per se; this can be found elsewhere (cf. Jacobs and Skocpol 2012). Nor is this a comprehensive study of presidential public promotion under Obama; more in-depth research is required to understand the detailed content of Obama's messages and his particular mobilization strategies. The second objective is to outline a framework for understanding presidential promotion as conditional--one that extends beyond a personalistic account of individual traits toward a more impersonal and institutional explanation.

This article proceeds in four sections. The first reviews the disconnect between the presidency research and the assessments of Obama's public handling of health reform by political observers and the broader discipline. The second section presents evidence from content analyses of Obama's public statements on health reform and the media's coverage of them that confound early assessments of Obama even as they fit with past research on the presidency. The third section draws on presidency research to account for the limited effects of Obama's public promotions. The fourth section concludes by encouraging presidency scholars both to engage in "translational research" that accurately disseminates findings and to confront misunderstandings of presidential promotions by political observers and the broader discipline.

Research on the Public Presidency and Disciplinary Presumptions

Over the past three decades, the expanding field of presidential research has developed more sophisticated and diverse analytic approaches, and devoted enormous time and effort to studying the president's widening commitment to promote himself and his policies to Americans and thereby go "over the heads" of Washington lawmakers and power brokers. This shift produced the large and vibrant subfield of the "public presidency" (Edwards 1983), which has developed in two broad directions. The first is a meticulous charting of the frequency of "going public" as well as its forms and audiences (Kernell 1986). Researchers trace the rise of the public presidency to changing norms of governance and speech (Tulis 1987), to the dissipation of power and the onset of policy paralysis (Kernell 1986), and to communications strategies that are geared toward mobilizing public support in order to augment scarce political resources and satisfy voter expectations (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000).

The second strand is a rigorous examination of the effects of presidential public promotions, which generally--though not uniformly--stresses the limits on White House efforts to mold Americans to their designs. George Edwards enjoys the distinction of both helping to launch the "public presidency" field (1983) and documenting its ineffectiveness in manufacturing public preferences or higher approval ratings (1996a, 1996b, 2003, 2007). Recent summaries of "minimal effects" research confirm that "evidence is mounting that presidents find difficulty in leading public opinion" (Tedin, Rottinghaus, and Rodgers 2011, 506) and that their "effectiveness [is] more problematic [than often assumed]" (Cameron and Park 2011, 443).

This research also challenges the causal chain in which "going public" is expected to mobilize public support that, in turn, pressures members of Congress and other policy makers to adopt the president's policies. Investigations repeatedly report that presidential promotions have limited impacts on Congress. Presidents who rely on orchestrated appeals frequently find themselves exerting only "marginal" influence on lawmaking (Bond and Fleisher 1990; Edwards 1989, 2007) and victims of squandered political capital, frustrated public expectations, and potentially missed opportunities for privately negotiated pacts (Baum 2004; Jacobs and Shapiro 2000; Jerit 2008).

While extensive research suggests minimal effects of presidential promotion, it does not justify "writing off presidential leadership as totally ineffective" (Tedin, Rottinghaus, and Rodgers 2011, 506). A more precise distillation of the research is that presidential appeals fall short of White House objectives but can exert modest selective influence under certain conditions. Modest influence by presidents has been detected in discrete components of the policy process, specifically in agenda-setting, where a president can moderately elevate Americans' attention to his initiatives, even though he is unable to exclude other issues (Cohen 1982, 1995; Edwards and Barrett 2000; Peterson 1990). The White House may enjoy more influence when it has shifted from seeking to influence "the nation" to targeting subgroups of party activists, local communities, and discrete voting blocs (Cohen 2009; Druckman and Jacobs 2011; Tedin, Rottinghaus, and Rodgers 2011; Wattenberg 2004). These selective effects tend to be a bit more likely under conditions of relatively muted public opposition and countermobilization (Cameron and Park 2011) and elevated public support (Canes-Wrone 2001, 2006; Page and Shapiro 1984).

Gaps in the Consumption of Research

In contrast to the cautious and nuanced findings from the public presidency field, there is a tendency among political observers and the broader discipline of political and policy studies to exaggerate the scope and magnitude of White House influence through public promotions. Part of the problem is the tendency to reach generalizations based on significant if not necessarily representative cases such as Theodore Roosevelt's campaign for the Hepburn Act, Woodrow Wilson's use of major presidential addresses to press Congress to adopt tariff reform, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's radio promotion during his drive to pass Social Security (Laracey 2002; Tulis 1987). These studies are invaluable evidence for historical comparative analysis (e.g., Skocpol and Jacobs 2011) as well as for generating critical questions and tentative theses about American political development. But researchers also need to develop broader generalizations over a larger and more diverse set of presidential promotions. Simply extrapolating from the successes of Wilson and the Roosevelts in moving public opinion and Congress to Obama misunderstands historical comparative analysis and ignores the wider record of failed presidential promotion.

The more common problem is to misinterpret findings or, more frequently, to overinterpret them by neglecting the limits and conditions that generally restrict presidential influence. The public presidency field is cited to claim support for the assertion that "presidents' use of public rhetoric increases ... opportunities for the expansion of presidential power" (Beasley 2010, 22); that "many scholars assign the president...

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