restricted access Chapter 13 Report of the National Task Force on the Presidency and Public Opinion
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chapter 13 Report of the National Task Force on the Presidency and Public Opinion Chair: J. Michael Hogan, Pennsylvania State University, University Park George C. Edwards III, Texas A&M University, College Station Wynton C. Hall, Bainbridge College Christine L. Harold, University of Georgia, Athens Gerard A. Hauser, University of Colorado, Boulder Susan Herbst, Temple University Robert Y. Shapiro, Columbia University Ted J. Smith III, Virginia Commonwealth University The National Task Force on the Presidency and Public Opinion was charged with assessing scholarship at the nexus of two topics that have produced large, interdisciplinary bodies of literature: the presidency and public opinion. Under the space constraints of this report, we cannot possibly review all of that literature, much less provide definitive answers to all of the questions raised by scholars , journalists, and concerned citizens. In what follows, we focus on those issues that we believe have been central to inquiry into the relationship between the presidency and public opinion and that we believe will guide research in the future. 294 | Task Force Reports We begin with a brief review of the presidency and public opinion in history and democratic theory. We then focus on the rise of polling and the instrumental use of polling by presidents and presidential candidates. In the third section of the report we focus on media polling and the impact of public polls on electoral politics and presidential leadership. Finally, we discuss the future of research on the presidency and public opinion, reviewing the empirical questions that remain to be resolved and sketching some new directions for research on the topic. The Presidency and Public Opinion in History and Democratic Theory Presidential leadership of public opinion, as Richard J. Ellis has written, is “nowhere mentioned” in the Constitution.1 During the debates over the Constitution , Alexander Hamilton argued for a strong executive insulated from popular opinion, and the indirect election of the President, a fixed term of office, and the separation of powers were all designed, at least in part, to insulate the presidency from public opinion. Fears of demagoguery animated many of the Founders, as they regarded manipulation of the masses and majority tyranny as “the peculiar vice to which democracies were susceptible.”2 The Founders wrote no rules for popular leadership into the constitutional presidency, but their theory implied a rhetorical doctrine that severely limited the president’s direct communication with the people. In the nineteenth century, two general proscriptions on presidential rhetoric reflected that doctrine: that appeals to the public ought to be limited to ceremonial addresses and formal proclamations , and that specific policy proposals ought not be advocated publicly but should be communicated to Congress in writing.3 Throughout the nineteenth century, a few presidents pushed the boundaries of these informal limitations on popular speech, and after the Civil War presidents spoke in public much more frequently. For the most part, however, even such “popular” presidents as Andrew Jackson rarely addressed the public, and those who did delivered mostly greetings, patriotic orations, or other ceremonial addresses. The one nineteenth-century president who did promote himself and his agenda in public, Andrew Johnson, was excoriated in the press and impeached on charges that, among other things, he brought “contempt, ridicule, and disgrace” upon the high office of the president with his “intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues.”4 Recently, a number of scholars have argued that the transition to the modern, rhetorical presidency was “less abrupt and more complex and multi-faceted” than Tulis The Presidency and Public Opinion | 295 suggested, yet all agree that the relationship between presidents and public opinion changed dramatically in the twentieth century and that “presidential modes of popular communication look radically different today than they did in 1787 or even 1887.”5 Theodore Roosevelt, of course, played a major role in the rise of the modern, “rhetorical” presidency. Campaigning publicly for the Hepburn Act, Roosevelt successfully appealed “over the heads” of Congress, and throughout his presidency he exhorted the public to embrace not only his policies but also his philosophical and social values. Reflecting on his own leadership, Roosevelt articulated no grand theory of “going public,” but he did attribute much of his success as president to his exploitation of the “bully pulpit.” As he recalled in his Autobiography, TR made a “resolute effort” to persuade congressional leaders to embrace his program of progressive reform, but eventually he found it necessary to go directly to the people: “Gradually, . . . I was forced to abandon the effort to persuade them to come...


Subject Headings

  • Presidents -- United States -- Language.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • United States -- Politics and government.
  • English language -- Rhetoric -- Study and teaching -- United States.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 2001-2009.
  • Presidents -- United States -- History.
  • Rhetoric -- Study and teaching -- United States.
  • Bush, George W. 1946- (George Walker), -- Language.
  • Political leadership -- United States.
  • Communication in politics -- United States.
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