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On Deaf Ears

On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit

Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    On Deaf Ears
    Book Description:

    American presidents often engage in intensive campaigns to obtain public support for their policy initiatives. This core strategy for governing is based on the premise that if presidents are skilled enough to exploit the "bully pulpit," they can successfully persuade or even mobilize public opinion on behalf of their legislative goals.

    In this book, George Edwards analyzes the results of hundreds of public opinion polls from recent presidencies to assess the success of these efforts. Surprisingly, he finds that presidents typically are not able to change public opinion; even great communicators usually fail to obtain the public's support for their high-priority initiatives. Focusing on presidents' personae, their messages, and the American public, he explains why presidents are often unable to move public opinion and suggests that their efforts to do so may be counterproductive. Edwards argues that shoring up previously existing support is the principal benefit of going public and that "staying private"-negotiating quietly with elites-may often be more conducive to a president's legislative success.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13362-2
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Part I Moving the Public

    • 1 The Permanent Campaign: Why Does the President Go Public?
      (pp. 3-23)

      No president ever invested more in attempting to mold public opinion than Bill Clinton. His was a presidency based on a perpetual campaign to obtain the public’s support¹—a campaign fed by public opinion polls, focus groups, and public relations memos. The White House even polled voters on where it was best for the First Family to vacation. In 1995, the White House spent an unprecedented $18 million in advertising on behalf of the president—a yearbeforethe presidential election.²

      Public leadership dominated the policy-making process in the Clinton White House, serving as both the focus of the president’s...

    • 2 Presidential Persuasion: Does the Public Respond? Part I
      (pp. 24-48)

      The premise that the president has considerable potential to move the public is so widespread and so central to our understanding of politics that we rarely focus on it explicitly. However, it is questionable that we shouldassumethat presidents, even skilled presidents, will be able to lead the public. John F. Kennedy once suggested an exchange fromKing Henry IV, Part Ias an epigraph for Clinton Rossiter’s classic work,The American Presidency:

      GLENDOWER: “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.”

      HOTSPUR: “Why, so can I, or so can any man.

      But will they come when you do...

    • 3 Presidential Persuasion: Does the Public Respond? Part II—Ronald Reagan
      (pp. 49-76)

      In contrast to his immediate predecessors, the public viewed Ronald Reagan as a strong leader, and his staff was unsurpassed in its skill at portraying the president and his views in the most positive light. This seeming love affair with the public generated commentary in both academia and the media about the persuasiveness of “The Great Communicator.” Reagan’s views were notable for their clarity and there is little doubt that the public knew where the president stood on matters of public policy. The question for us is the degree to which the public moved in Reagan’s direction.

      In his farewell...

  5. Part II The Messenger

    • 4 Charisma and Personality: Does the Messenger Matter?
      (pp. 79-106)

      Presidents are rarely able to move the public to support their policies. Nor is the bully pulpit much help to chief executives in increasing their own approval ratings. Findings so contrary to the conventional wisdom and to presidents’ core strategies for governing require an explanation. Why is presidential leadership of the public not more effective?

      Any causal chain between the White House and public opinion begins with the president. Every president is a unique individual, and there is perhaps no subject that receives more space in the press than the personal characteristics of the president. In addition, voters frequently focus...

    • 5 The Politics of Veneration: Do the People Defer?
      (pp. 107-124)

      George Washington is perhaps the most revered political leader in American public life, rivaled only by Abraham Lincoln. Known as “the father of his country,” he is the venerated symbol of the founding of the republic. As historian Forrest McDonald puts it, “In Europe as well as in America he was heralded as the Greatest Character of His Age.” “It is no exaggeration to say that Americans were willing to venture the experiment with a single, national republican chief executive only because of the unreserved trust in George Washington.” Adulation was lavished on him, and McDonald does not exaggerate when...

  6. Part III The Message

    • 6 Disseminating the Message: Can the President Focus the Public’s Attention?
      (pp. 127-155)

      The second primary component in the communications chain between the president and the public is the president’s message. Although some issues force their way onto the president’s agenda, presidents have more control over the substance of the messages they communicate to the public—the issues they address, the positions they take on them, and the terms in which they articulate their views—than on any other aspect of the communications process.

      The White House’s strategic decisions regarding which policies to pursue are beyond the focus of this study; we are concerned with whether presidents are more likely to be successful...

    • 7 Framing the Message: Can the President Structure Choice?
      (pp. 156-184)

      In 1985 Ronald Reagan asked Congress to appropriate funds for twentyone additional MX missiles. He had been unable to win the money he had sought in 1984 when the debate focused on the utility of the missiles as strategic weapons. He succeeded the next year, however, after the terms of the debate changed to focus on the effect of building the missiles on the arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union that had recently begun in Geneva. Senators and representatives who lacked confidence in the contribution of the MX to national security were still reluctant to go to the public...

  7. Part IV The Audience

    • 8 Receiving the Message: Is Anyone Listening?
      (pp. 187-217)

      To this point, we have focused on the first elements of the communications chain, the messenger and the message. At the other end of the chain is the audience for the president’s messages. If the president is going to lead the public, it must firstreceivehis message. Although commentators on the presidency typically assume that the president can gain the nation’s attention whenever he desires to do so, there is little evidence to support such an assumption. Given the problems the president has in disseminating his message, the public’s low interest in politics, and the easy access that cable...

    • 9 Accepting the Message: Can the President Overcome Predispositions?
      (pp. 218-238)

      For the president to lead the public successfully, he must do more than frame issues to his advantage and persuade the public to view issues through those frames. He must do more than disseminate his views widely and ensure that the public receives his messages. The critical final stage in persuading the public is obtaining the public’s acceptance of his policy positions and of his own performance.

      To gain acceptance, however, the president must overcome the predispositions of the audience. Developed over a lifetime, these views mediate the president’s messages. If people perceive the president’s stances to be inconsistent with...

  8. Part V Conclusion

    • 10 Going Public in Perspective: What Should the President Do?
      (pp. 241-254)

      Presidents go public for many reasons. In this book I have focused on presidents’ efforts to encourage positive evaluations of themselves, promote their legislative initiatives, rally the public behind their military interventions, and defend themselves against charges of malfeasance or misconduct. Although sometimes they are able to maintain public support for themselves and their policies, presidents typically do not succeed in their efforts to change public opinion. Even “great communicators” usually fail to obtain the public’s support for their high-priority initiatives.

      Moreover, the bully pulpit has proved ineffective not only for achieving majority support but also for increasing support from...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 255-294)
  10. Index
    (pp. 295-303)