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Who Leads Whom?: Presidents, Policy, and the Public

Who Leads Whom?: Presidents, Policy, and the Public

by Brandice Canes-Wrone


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Who Leads Whom? is an ambitious study that addresses some of the most important questions in contemporary American politics: Do presidents pander to public opinion by backing popular policy measures that they believe would actually harm the country? Why do presidents "go public" with policy appeals? And do those appeals affect legislative outcomes?

Analyzing the actions of modern presidents ranging from Eisenhower to Clinton, Brandice Canes-Wrone demonstrates that presidents' involvement of the mass public, by putting pressure on Congress, shifts policy in the direction of majority opinion. More important, she also shows that presidents rarely cater to the mass citizenry unless they already agree with the public's preferred course of action. With contemporary politics so connected to the pulse of the American people, Who Leads Whom? offers much-needed insight into how public opinion actually works in our democratic process. Integrating perspectives from presidential studies, legislative politics, public opinion, and rational choice theory, this theoretical and empirical inquiry will appeal to a wide range of scholars of American political processes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226092805
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/15/2005
Series: Studies in Communication, Media, and Public Opinion Series
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Brandice Canes-Wrone is associate professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University.

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Who Leads Whom?
Presidents, Policy, and the Public

Copyright © 2006
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-09280-5

Chapter One Presidents' Involvement of the Mass Public

On June 6 of 2002, President George W. Bush went on nationwide television to advocate adding a Department of Homeland Security to the executive cabinet. As Bush noted in the speech, he was promoting the largest restructuring of the federal government since 1947, when President Harry Truman moved the armed forces into the agency now called the Department of Defense. Bush's support for the new bureaucratic structure represented a departure from his previous position. For months, he had been claiming that internal security should be managed by an agency located within the Executive Office of the President. Indeed, the Congressional Quarterly Weekly referred to the switch in his stance as a "stunning turnabout."

At the time of the speech, political pundits of various persuasions opined that the president had changed his position less because of a conversion in his beliefs and more out of a desire to placate mass opinion. For example, Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) conjectured that the administration had "gotten an indication from polling data that there's concern of their grip of the situation ... They're doing this as a defensive reaction that they no longer look omnicompetent [sic] to the public." Similarly, Ivan Eland of the libertarian Cato Institute opined that "the initiative is primarily designed to pretend that the administration is doing something, rather than administering much needed 'tough love' to the security bureaucracies." Even the Republican membership of Congress expressed some doubt. Representative Adam Putnam (R-FL) complained "we can't afford to turn the federal government upside down through rose-colored, daisy-sniffing marches toward group think." Indeed, the idea of creating a Department of Homeland Security was quite popular with the public. In the weeks after Bush's address, surveys found that around 70 percent of the populace supported establishing a cabinet-level department responsible for internal security.

As the legislative negotiations over Bush's initiative progressed, it faced the most serious resistance in the Senate, where the Democrats held a one-person majority. The key point of contention concerned the personnel system of the prospective department. Bush wanted to limit the would-be employees' civil service protections and rights to join unions. The Senate leadership, headed by Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), opposed these provisions, claiming that the administration wanted to use the new agency to advance an anti-union agenda. By the time Congress recessed for the 2002 elections, the Senate Democrats and President Bush had not been able to reach an agreement.

Republicans highlighted the disagreement in a number of senatorial races. For example, Saxby Chambliss, the Republican challenger to Democratic Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, released television advertisements that criticized the incumbent for failing to support the president's proposed Department of Homeland Security. Jim Talent, the Republican challenger to Senator Jean Carnahan of Missouri, likewise stressed her opposition to the president's initiative. Chambliss and Talent ultimately defeated their opponents, and observers cited the homeland security issue as contributing significantly to the victories. For instance, the Financial Times commented, "the lack of congressional approval for the new department was used effectively by Republicans in unseating two Democratic senators in Georgia and Missouri." More dramatically, the Congressional Quarterly Weekly noted that Democrats "were pummeled in the fall campaigns by Republicans who said they had blocked the [president's Homeland Security] bill."

Following these results, the Democrats yielded to the president on the issue of homeland security. On November 19, by a 90-9 vote, the Senate passed a bill creating a Department of Homeland Security with the personnel flexibility President Bush had requested. The House agreed to the Senate version by a voice vote on November 22, and the president signed the legislation into law three days later.

The events surrounding the creation of the Department of Homeland Security draw attention to several important ways in which policymaking in Washington may be affected by presidents' plebiscitary activities, such as polling and mass appeals. First, the pundits' claim that Bush championed the department in an effort to appease the electorate highlights that a president may support policies simply because they are popular, not because he believes in the merits. Second, Bush's appeal underscores that a president may employ the bully pulpit to pressure congressional members to enact his policy initiatives. These effects, in combination, suggest that a president may follow mass opinion when formulating a policy agenda and proceed to advance the agenda through the legislative process by rallying the public to support it.

Such behavior is precisely what architects of the United States Constitution feared. They did not want the populace directly involved in policymaking and were deeply skeptical of the citizenry's ability to participate in reasoned deliberation. The "masses" were perceived to be easily influenced by temporary passions. James Madison summarizes this viewpoint in Federalist Paper No. 49, proclaiming that "a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato." Indeed, as Ralph Ketcham (1986, 6) notes in his introduction to the Anti-Federalist Papers, even statesmen who opposed the Constitution on certain grounds were generally anxious about "rule by the ... demagogue-dominated 'voice of the people.'"

Consistent with this perspective, the Federalist Papers stipulate that elected officials should not involve the mass public in the policymaking process. For instance, in No. 71, Alexander Hamilton states that the president should not allow public opinion to guide his policy choices. Hamilton observes, "There are some who would be inclined to regard the servile pliancy of the Executive to a prevailing current ... as its best recommendation. But such men entertain very crude notions ... as of the true means by which the public happiness may be promoted." Likewise, Madison in Federalist Paper No. 49 argues that regular mass appeals would not serve the national interest because they would cause "the passions ... not the reason, of the public [to] sit in judgment." As these statements suggest, the architects of the Constitution feared presidents' arousing and monitoring of public opinion could readily degenerate into demagoguery.

To the extent that this fear has ever been relevant, it certainly should be today. As Eisinger (2003, 5) documents, polling has become "an integral part of [presidents'] White House modus operandi." Presidents, through their national party committees, spend millions of dollars on polls (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000, 367-68n). Likewise, televised appeals to the public are now commonplace; Ragsdale (1998) estimates that Presidents Richard Nixon through Bill Clinton gave a major address approximately five times every year. These days one simply cannot separate presidents' role in the policy process from their involvement of the mass public in the process.

The purpose of this book is to analyze how such plebiscitary activity affects the policy decisions of presidents and legislators. In particular, I examine how policymaking in Washington is influenced by presidents' appeals and attention to mass opinion. As mentioned in the preface, I refer to these actions jointly as presidents' involvement of the mass public. This book assesses whether this executive behavior in fact increases the degree to which mass opinion guides policymaking and also the extent to which any such guidance indeed entails presidents disregarding societal welfare.

The existing literature contains two recurring themes regarding the policy impact of presidents' involvement of the mass public. The first comports with the concerns voiced by the authors of the Federalist: namely, that the involvement encourages the enactment of policy that caters to transitory, ill-reasoned opinion at the expense of societal welfare. A separate, contrasting theme is that the involvement does not necessarily shift policy in the direction of existing opinion. This idea emerges in work that argues presidents use polls and public appeals to try to manipulate public opinion, in research that suggests congressional members do not alter their behavior in response to presidents' appeals, in studies that indicate the appeals are simply grandstanding, and in analyses that find presidents are unresponsive to public opinion.

In this book I argue against each of these perspectives. I find that presidents' involvement of the mass public does shift policy toward majority opinion. However, I also find that under most conditions a president will not endorse a popular policy he believes is contrary to the interest of society. In other words, under most conditions, the popular policies that the president takes to the airwaves are ones that he believes will improve societal welfare. Thus presidents' arousing and monitoring of public opinion increase the influence of the populace but not in a way that entails pervasive demagoguery.

The analysis is divided into two major parts. The first half focuses on presidents' appeals to the mass public, the second on presidents' incentives to pander to "current opinion," or the opinion that exists at the time the president is making his policy decision. The earlier part shows why, at first glance, presidents may appear to be plebiscites to those believing pervasive responsiveness likely reflects demagogic behavior. When a chief executive selects among proposals to publicize over the airwaves, the decision is not independent of how popular each proposal is. On the whole, presidents are more likely to issue appeals about initiatives that comport with citizens' policy preferences. This effect is stronger in the domain of domestic than foreign affairs, but even in the latter case, a president's selection of issues to take to the public is strategic in that he tends to avoid publicizing initiatives that face strong popular opposition.

The second half of the book shows that this behavior does not imply presidents take popular stances whenever citizens are likely to be attentive. Instead, depending on the president's personal popularity and the electoral cycle, his policy choices may be driven by concern about anticipated public reaction to the policy results or even by a desire to create good public policy. For example, when a president's personal approval is either high or low, he does not support popular policies that he believes will be detrimental to society. Likewise, when the next election is distant or he is not running for reelection, he does not cater to the mass citizenry unless he agrees with their preferred course of action. Only when a president is marginally popular and soon faces an electoral contest does he pander to public opinion by supporting a popular policy that he believes will not advance citizens' interests.

The book therefore finds that presidents strategically focus their public appeals on policies consistent with mass opinion but often would have supported the policies even if the public had not. Appealing to the populace simply increases a president's ability to achieve legislative success on policies that, for the most part, he and the people support. More generally, the analysis demonstrates that presidents' involvement of the public increases the likelihood popular initiatives are enacted and, at the same time, does not pervasively alter executive decision making. In other words, the involvement augments the influence of majority opinion but does not generally produce demagogic leadership.


Presidential Power

During the past fifty years, research on presidents' policy influence has primarily focused on topics other than the involvement of the mass public. For instance, a great deal of work examines how formal powers, such as the veto and executive orders, influence policymaking. A literature also exists on how presidents' policy influence differs between foreign and domestic affairs; on the whole, this research suggests that chief executives have particular advantages in foreign affairs. Finally, following Richard Neustadt (1990 [1960]), scholars have examined how policymaking is affected by a president's public standing and dealings with other elites in Washington. Obviously, the subject of personal standing or popularity is somewhat related to the topic at hand in that each concerns public opinion. It is therefore worth noting that most work on presidents' personal approval allows that mass appeals may not affect policymaking.

Neustadt (1990 [1960], 269) does recognize President Ronald Reagan's use of television to mobilize the public and acknowledges future presidents may similarly try to exploit the medium. He views the possibility cautiously, however, and does not assess public appeals to be a key component of executive power. Likewise, George Edwards (2003) argues that appeals typically fail to aid presidents' legislative efforts. Edwards bases this argument on evidence that presidents are unable to alter citizens' dispositions about policy issues.

Perhaps surprisingly, the strongest indication that presidents' appeals might engender policy influence comes from work focused less on executive power than on historical development. In particular, a number of studies document that over the past one hundred years chief executives have increasingly employed a strategy of "going public," to use Samuel Kernell's (1997) famous language. While some of these studies are more optimistic (e.g., Kernell 1997) than others (e.g., Bessette 1994; Tulis 1987) about the prospects for systematic influence from the strategy, on the whole the historical works suggest it is effective at least rarely.

Only a few studies, both from within and outside this historical tradition, actually grapple with the question of why appeals might regularly aid presidents in the legislative process. The explanations that these analyses provide vary greatly, but all imply the action may not augment the degree to which citizens' policy positions guide policymakers' decisions. For instance, Gary Miller (1993) argues that appeals move legislation from the committee stage to the floor, Calvin Mouw and Michael MacKuen (1992) find they moderate the positions of congressional agenda setters, and Kernell (1997) contends that going public allows popular presidents to garner support for their positions. It also has been argued that the strategy can increase executive influence by enabling presidents to commit to vetoing legislation they actually prefer to the status quo (Ingberman and Yao 1991a; 1991b). Notably, in none of these accounts are the policy preferences of the mass public a central component.

The role of these preferences is actually strongest in research that argues presidential appeals only rarely affect congressional behavior. Specifically, Jeffrey Tulis (1987; 1998) and Joseph Bessette (1994) contend that appealing to the public will seldom aid a president but that when the action does so the impact is detrimental because it entails politicians giving more deference to the ill-informed views of the public. Tulis (1998, 111-13), for example, stresses the difficulty in permitting rhetorical leadership without simultaneously encouraging leaders to cater to a mass opinion that he characterizes as transitory and ill-reasoned. Likewise, Bessette (1994, 212) suggests that presidents' mobilizing of public opinion can encourage congressional members to pass legislation they would not support "given a fuller consideration of information and arguments."

In sum, the literature on presidential power suggests three schools of thought about public appeals. The first, dominant perspective is that they are not a significant component of executive power. A second perspective is that they are indeed a significant component of executive power but do not necessarily increase the degree to citizens' policy preferences guide policymaking. Finally, a third school of thought suggests that appeals increase the influence of presidents as well as the mass public but then only on rare occasion and at the expense of societal welfare.

Presidential Decision Making

The literature has long maintained that public opinion affects the policy decisions of elected officials such as presidents (e.g., Downs 1957; Key 1961; Monroe 1979; Page and Shapiro 1983). Recently, a number of studies have examined whether presidents are indeed "responsive" to public opinion, in the sense of enacting policies currently favored by the populace, and several suggest that the overall level of presidential responsiveness is actually quite low. For instance, Jeffrey Cohen (1997) demonstrates that the level of ideological liberalism in society does not consistently influence presidents' stances in State of the Union addresses. Consistent with this finding, Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro (2000, 2002a) argue that presidents have recently employed polls and other public relations tools to try to shape public opinion rather than cater to it.


Excerpted from Who Leads Whom? by BRANDICE CANES-WRONE Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Contents List of Tables and Figures....................ix
1. Presidents' Involvement of the Mass Public....................1
PART ONE Public Appeals....................15
2. A Theory of Public Appeals....................19
3. Domestic Policy Appeals....................51
4. Foreign Policy Appeals....................83
PART TWO Policy Pandering and Leadership....................103
5. Incentives for Policy Pandering....................111
6. Examples of Policy Pandering and Leadership....................131
7. Patterns of Presidential Decisions With Kenneth W. Shotts....................157
8. Chief Executives, Policymaking, and the Public....................185
Name Index....................205
Subject Index....................209

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