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Provisional Pulpit

Modern Presidential Leadership of Public Opinion

By Brandon Rottinghaus

Publication Year: 2010

The cornerstone of the public presidency is the ability of the White House to influence, shape, and even manipulate public opinion. Ultimately, although much has been written about presidential leadership of opinion, we are still left with many questions pertaining to the success of presidential opinion leadership efforts throughout the modern presidency. What is still missing is a systematic, sequential approach to describe empirical trends in presidential leadership of public opinion in order to expand on important scholarly queries, to resolve empirical disputes in the literature, and to check the accuracy of conventional political wisdom on how, when, and under what conditions presidents lead public opinion. In The Provisional Pulpit, Brandon Rottinghaus develops a simple theory of presidential leadership, arguing that presidential messages are more likely to be received if there are fewer countervailing agents or messages to contradict the president’s message. He concludes, based upon the findings presented in this book, that the “bully pulpit” is largely provisional for modern presidents. The more the president can avoid the political echo chamber associated with partisan battles or communications, the better the chance the president has to lead public opinion. The Provisional Pulpit adds an important layer of understanding to the issue of how and under what conditions presidents lead public opinion. All modern presidents clearly attempt to lead public opinion; often, due to factors outside their control, they fail. This book is an exploration into how and when they succeed.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Joseph V. Hughes Jr. and Holly O. Hughes Series on the Presidency and Leadership


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvii

In this book I pose a simple but critical question that is at the core of modern presidential politics: when and under what conditions do presidents find success at leading public opinion? To address this question and begin this investigation, in this preface I make an informal (but instructional) survey of three moments of attempted presidential leadership. In assessing the interaction of period, president, and policy, we hope...

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pp. xiv-xx

In writing this book, many colleagues and friends along the way gave helpful comments for improving the manuscript, working through methodological issues, and sharpening my focus on the key arguments. These include Jeff Cohen, Dan Wood, Matt Eshbaugh-Soha, Lori Cox Han, Jamie Druckman, Nick Jorgensen, Dan Bergan, Justin Vaughn, Elvin Lim, Noah Kaplan, John Sloan, Scott Basinger, Harrell Rodgers, Kent Tedin...

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Chapter 1: Questions and Quandaries of Presidential Leadership

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pp. 1-12

We see presidents talking all the time, but what effect does this rhetoric have on the public’s policy preferences? All modern presidents spend time attempting to lead public opinion by speaking to groups, doing Saturday radio addresses, holding press conferences, giving speeches from the Oval Office, and more. Given an expansive executive office to help shape and control their message, an army of political surrogates to carry out their message, and a fully focused cadre of press devoted to their...

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CHAPTER 2: The Constrained Presidency: A Conditional Theory of Presidential Leadership

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pp. 13-36

In the previous chapter I introduced a puzzle about presidential leadership: if the president is constantly talking and is consistently visible, why is there so little movement in public opinion? My goal in this book is to understand when presidents succeed at leading public opinion. To take the next step in addressing this puzzle, I off er a theory of conditional presidential success of leadership and pose several hypotheses...

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Chapter 3: Presidential (Non-)Leadership of Public Opinion

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pp. 37-53

In the previous two chapters I outlined several important works in the study of presidential leadership of public opinion and introduced a theory pertaining to when presidents should successfully lead public opinion. I argued that presidents are more likely to lead when fewer countervailing agents limit the reach of the president’s message. In addition, I posed several hypotheses that are necessary to address in order to...

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Chapter 4: Successful Presidential Leadership of Public Opinion

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pp. 54-80

Presidents have not been shy about using the bully pulpit to carry their messages to the American public, believing it to be important to their policy success while in office and to their political legacy after they leave office. It is surprising to learn, however, that despite lofty expectations and requisite tools, presidents are generally unsuccessful at leading...

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Chapter 5: Successful Leadership in Domestic Policy

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pp. 81-109

The previous two chapters outlined the broad statistical trends in presidential leadership of public opinion. However, since those data amalgamate several presidents, we might be missing important historical points about presidential leadership. Therefore, it is instructive to decouple these findings by looking at individual periods of time...

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Chapter 6: Unsuccessful Leadership in Domestic Policy

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pp. 110-135

In the previous chapter, I outlined three case studies of successful leadership of public opinion. These cases helped advance our understanding of when presidents can lead public opinion, the conditions that enhance presidential leadership, and how these moments interact with one another in real political contexts. In this chapter I examine three...

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Chapter 7: Successful Leadership in Foreign Policy

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pp. 136-162

One of the ironies of presidential leadership of public opinion is that although presidents are presumed to fail at leading on domestic policy issues, they are widely thought to be successful at leading public opinion on foreign policy issues. Theoretically and empirically, this should be true because of the presumed advantages of the White House in...

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Chapter 8: Unsuccessful Leadership in Foreign Policy

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pp. 163-189

It is clear from the few presidents studied in the previous chapter that presidents find success at leading public opinion on foreign policy is-sues—indeed, provided enough space, I could expand this discussion to several more moments of leadership where the president has persuasively functioned as commander-in-chief. That presidents find particular...

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CHAPTER 9: Implications for Leadership and the Public Presidency

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pp. 190-201

As observers and scholars of presidential history, we are obsessed with ranking the presidents who are thought to be the “best leaders.” Early attempts (such as Arthur M. Schlesinger’s survey of historians in 1948) and more recent attempts (such as James Taranto and Leonard Leo’s Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and Worst in the White House)...

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Epilogue: Presidents 43 and 44

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pp. 203-216

The data (and most of the case studies) in this book end with the Clinton presidency. As described throughout this book, several detrimental modern political factors negatively affected the leadership efforts of later-serving presidents (Presidents Carter to Clinton). These factors all relate to the story presented in Chapter 2—as presidents face more...

Appendix A: Case Selection, Matching Statements,and Opinion Polling

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pp. 217-226

Appendix B: Case Study Selection and Archival Data Collection Methods

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pp. 227-233

Appendix C: Data and Models

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pp. 234-252


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pp. 253-288


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pp. 289-306


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pp. 307-318

E-ISBN-13: 9781603443593
E-ISBN-10: 1603443592
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603441872
Print-ISBN-10: 1603441875

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 9 figs. 27 tables. Bib. Index.
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Joseph V. Hughes Jr. and Holly O. Hughes Series on the Presidency and Leadership
Series Editor Byline: Pfiffner, James P. See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 680622506
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Provisional Pulpit

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Presidents -- United States -- Public opinion -- Case studies.
  • Communication in politics -- United States -- Case studies.
  • Persuasion (Rhetoric) -- Political aspects -- United States -- Case studies.
  • Political leadership -- United States -- Case studies.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 21st century.
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