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date: 26 February 2024

Going Public and Presidential Leadershipfree

Going Public and Presidential Leadershipfree

  • Matthew Eshbaugh-SohaMatthew Eshbaugh-SohaDepartment of Political Science, University of North Texas


Going public is the preeminent governing strategy of modern presidents. When presidents go public, they attempt to influence the decisions, actions, and opinions of others through speechmaking and other public engagement. Although some scholars of the rhetorical presidency show how presidents have used speeches to govern since the dawn of American democracy, the bulk of scholarship centers on the modern presidency, as both advances in communications technologies and changes in federal policymaking institutions spurred presidents to go public.

Going public as a leadership strategy involves a variety of presidential speeches designed to reach a range of institutions and actors. Strategies include going local, speaking on national television, or saturating news coverage by sustaining attention to a top priority. The president’s target audience can be Congress, the public, news media, or bureaucracy. Presidents have had some success going public, although the ways in which presidents have been successful vary by strategy and target audience.

Going public is more than just presidential leadership of others. It is also about what incentivizes the president’s efforts to use speeches to govern in the first place. Thus, a second focus of research on going public is what explains speechmaking and the tendency of presidents to respond to those institutions and actors that they also attempt to lead. The majority of existing research centers on presidential leadership of, and responsiveness to, mass public opinion, but the emergence of a more polarized public may influence why presidents go public and may change what political scientists conclude concerning going public and presidential leadership in a more polarized political age.


  • Political Communication
  • Political Institutions


Going public is the preeminent governing strategy of modern presidents. When presidents go public, they attempt to influence the decisions, actions, and opinions of others through speechmaking and other public activities. Over time, presidents have gone public more frequently as public expectations, governing norms, and the technology available to reach diverse audiences have evolved. To maximize the effectiveness of their public relations, presidents devote countless resources to managing the message effectively using the modern White House apparatus (Kumar, 2007; Maltese, 1994). Although some scholarship maintains that presidents have always tapped rhetoric to govern, the bulk of our understanding of going public is based on the modern presidency.

Going public is a strategy of both leadership and responsiveness. That is, whereas presidents may speak on national television, go local, or focus their public attention on top policy priorities, going public research also examines why presidents speak in the first place. Therefore, the public presidency is not just about leading the public, news media, or Congress, it is also about showing these institutions that the president is governing and responding to their priorities and concerns. In the modern White House, this involves devoting scarce resources to public relations and effective communication. Although presidents are not always successful in using speeches to influence others, they may still use speechmaking to meet expectations.

After addressing the qualitative foundations of the rhetorical presidency, this article underscores the theoretical basics of going public, particularly as it concerns the impact of presidential speeches on the public and Congress. This article also targets both leadership and responsiveness in presidential speechmaking and going public, and pays particular attention to whether or not presidents are successful leaders, who they lead, and what motivates presidents to use speeches to govern. Although the majority of existing research centers on presidential leadership of, and responsiveness to, mass public opinion, the emergence of a more polarized public may influence why presidents go public and may change what political scientists conclude concerning going public and presidential leadership. The article concludes with comments on this possibility.

The Foundations of Going Public

Going public as a strategy of presidential leadership rests on the quantity and quality of presidential attempts to communicate publicly. Most research focuses, naturally, on the rise in public speechmaking after the advances in communications technology of the post-World War II era, television especially. The bulk of this scholarship, built upon the work of Samuel Kernell (2007), holds that modern presidents used speeches more earnestly than their predecessors to achieve their policy goals, especially in Congress. Nevertheless, research on the rhetorical presidency contends that the use of rhetoric by American presidents has varied according to their historical circumstances and incentives to govern. Therefore, it is important to address not only the theoretical foundations of going public among modern presidents, but also the rhetorical presidency, a feature of the American presidency that arguably crosses all historical eras.

The Rhetorical Presidency

The question of whether going public is a phenomenon of the modern presidency, or one that has permeated the presidency from its founding, is a central debate about the rhetorical presidency. Tulis (1987) agrees with the former perspective and conceives of presidential rhetoric in two phases, or constitutions. In the first, presidents are constrained by the US Constitution, one that shuns public appeals. Under the second constitution, however, the presidency transforms into an institution that relies on popular appeals and actively cultivates public support. Early examples are the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson—particularly Wilson’s nationwide campaign to build support for the League of Nations—which illustrate how presidents began to go public on behalf of their presidencies and policy priorities. Even though Tulis (1987) agrees that presidents appear able to parlay public appeals into increased presidential success in Congress, their success is not without cost, as heightened rhetoric also increases the public’s expectations for presidential leadership, ultimately undermining the implementation of the president’s policies (Zarefsky, 1986), and even the presidency itself (Lowi, 1985), through popular demagoguery.

Other research suggests that going public was evidenced throughout the history of the presidency, and is not restricted to the modern era. Laracey (2002) argues that 19th century presidents, such as Jefferson and Jackson, regularly communicated their policies to the American people through partisan newspapers. Moreover, reaching out to the American people is consistent with anti-federalist ideals of government by the common man, and is certainly reflected in popular support for the election of Andrew Jackson as president. This does not mean that the ways in which presidents have gone public have remained constant over time. They have not. Without question, presidential rhetoric has become more simplistic over time (Lim, 2008). Rhetoric also changes from president to president because it mirrors the larger political context in which presidents govern (Shogan, 2006).

Theories of Going Public

Richard Neustadt’s (1990) concept of presidential power and influence, that presidential power is the power to persuade, provides the starting point for the modern development of going public as a governing strategy. To review, Neustadt (1990) envisioned presidential power as the presidents’ use of persuasion to get others to do what they would not otherwise do—a classic definition of power. At the president’s disposal was not an unquestionable legitimacy of authority, however. The Constitution never ensures presidential influence; instead, presidents who cultivate the twin advantages of reputation and prestige increase the likelihood that they will be influential, as both advantages assist presidents in bargaining effectively with congressional leaders in pursuit of presidential policy goals. Although Neustadt mentions the bureaucracy and recognizes the importance of the public to presidential leadership, his focus is on bargaining conditions in Congress, with public speechmaking serving a minimal role in the president’s strategy.

Yet, the environments of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations—upon which Neustadt built his understanding of presidential power—may have signaled the beginning of the end of a reliable bargaining environment. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson worked with Congresses similar to those facing Truman and Eisenhower, and the initial rise in public outreach began in the early 1960s (Ragsdale, 2009), perhaps as television provided the necessary technological advance to allow for greater public outreach (Hager & Sullivan, 1994). Although Kernell (2007) points to Reagan’s skillful use of national television as the first and quintessential going public strategy, Kennedy’s use of televised press conferences helped to personalize the presidency by bringing the president directly into the homes of the American people.

Along with the rise of television and its facilitation of public outreach came two additional changes to the political environment. First, Congress became more decentralized after organizational changes in the early 1970s. Whereas presidents like Lyndon Johnson could count on a handful of committee chairs and party leaders to shepherd proposals through Congress, the decentralized Congress increased opportunities for individual rank-and-file legislators to affect policy. By varying who might be the veto pivot in the legislative process, a decentralized committee system complicated the president’s ability to bargain with just a few legislators to secure his agenda. Second, party nomination reforms changed the locus of presidential selection from closed party conventions driven by political party leadership to a more pluralistic and public exercise, which required candidates to campaign for a party’s nomination in primaries and caucuses across the nation. Just as changes to congressional organization made it more difficult for presidents to bargain with a handful of key party leaders and committee chairs, nomination reforms increased the likelihood that a political party would nominate an outsider, or somebody not skilled in the workings of Washington DC politics. An outsider president would be more likely to go over the heads of Congress and to appeal to the public for support (Kernell, 2007), since this is how he became president to begin with.

Of course, it was Samuel Kernell (2007) who first described the transition away from a centralized Congress and the reform of party nominations as a structural change from institutionalized to individualized pluralism. Simply, as Congress decentralized, primaries selected presidential nominees, and divided government made it more difficult for presidents to persuade Congress and be successful, presidents turned to the public. That is, presidents began to go over the heads of Congress to enlist public opinion as a force to break congressional gridlock and to increase their legislative success. Presidential speeches designed to move public opinion behind the president’s legislative agenda became a tool of presidential influence in a legislature that was not as amenable as it had been to bargaining. Moreover, Kernell (2007) identifies Reagan as having led public opinion in this manner, noting the response of Congress to a series of national addresses in early 1981 in which President Reagan explicitly asked the public for their support.

Although subsequent scholarship found that going public on important bills increases the likelihood that the president’s position will win a roll-call vote (Barrett, 2004), others question the underlying linkages between the president’s speeches and legislative success. In a word, presidents are unlikely to move public opinion toward their preferred policy position (Edwards, 2003). If presidents cannot readily lead public opinion, then the conclusion that going public creates a groundswell of public support that moves Congress may be inaccurate. Because speeches do increase legislative success, however, even absent presidential leadership of public preferences, there must be an alternative explanation for how presidential appeals translate into enhanced legislative success.

To this end, Canes-Wrone (2006) provides a theoretical bridge between Kernell’s (2007) observations that presidents go public to achieve legislative success and Edwards’ (2003) contention that presidential influence in Congress is unlikely to be the result of moving public opinion. Later echoed by Edwards (2009), Canes-Wrone shows that presidents are more likely to win in Congress when they go public, but that presidents are strategic in appealing to the public. That is, presidents make public appeals on issues that are already popular with the public. Eschewing the more difficult task of changing public opinion (but see Rottinghaus, 2010), presidents aim to increase the salience of issues (Cohen, 1995; Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2011), thereby putting some public pressure on legislators to support the president because the public already supports the issues. Canes-Wrone is careful to account for any disingenuousness of a strategic presidency—that presidents may speak predominately on issues already likely to pass Congress—and shows that likely success does not shape the likelihood of presidential appeals.

In all, the theoretical development of the modern presidency hinges on the transition from traditional bargaining in Congress—what Kernell (2007) calls institutionalized pluralism—to increased reliance on public speeches. In effect, the view has moved from an expectation that presidential power is the power to persuade to a much firmer conclusion that it is definitely not (Edwards, 2009). Today, the predominant theoretical frame to best explain presidential leadership is a strategic one, that presidents take advantage of favorable circumstances (such as existing public support for an issue) to achieve their goals. Although presidents may not be able to move public opinion at will, nevertheless, presidents have many ways to use their public speeches to affect other government institutions, the media, and the public as they attempt to harness opportunities to their advantage.

Going Public as Leadership

Going public has become the primary strategy presidents use to achieve their goals, replacing traditional bargaining and the Neustadtian definition of presidential power, but presidents use different approaches to going public, and there is a body of evidence available showing how effective the approaches are in relation to each other.

Strategies of Leadership

Presidents speak to lead, but not all speeches are expected to have the same impact. Some may be more effective at leading different institutions than others. Some might generate more media attention, and some target different types of media than others. Scholars have identified three major strategies of public leadership: a strategy of focused attention, which emphasizes nationally televised addresses; going local, which targets speeches delivered outside of Washington, DC; and a strategy of sustained attention, which combines all public activities. In addition, presidents deliver specific types of speeches and hold press conferences, which have their own unique qualities and effects on presidential leadership.

First, the strategy of focused leadership centers on major addresses. Although broad-based speeches, such as the State of the Union and Inaugural addresses, are also considered to be major speeches (Coe & Neumann, 2011; see Kernell, 2007, pp. 116–120; Ragsdale, 2009, Table 4.1, for similar lists of major speeches), the crux of focused attention is policy-specific speeches delivered to joint sessions of Congress or to the nation. The speeches are televised, and presidents typically deliver them on a weekday and in prime time (Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2011, p. 82).

The reasons for engaging in this strategy are obvious. A national address is a high-profile presidential speech that is likely to generate wide media coverage and a public audience, including members of Congress and the federal bureaucracy. Nevertheless, this approach is targeted and rare (since the Kennedy presidency, no president has made more than a dozen national addresses in a year), and major speeches are more likely to address a foreign policy issue (e.g., announcing missile strikes against Iraq) than a domestic legislative priority. Their infrequent occurrence maximizes their impact on the public (Kernell, 2007, p. 93), and also acknowledges the television networks’ reluctance to give up precious (and profitable) prime time to presidential addresses (see Edwards, 2003, p. 214), especially as viewership has declined since the rise of cable television (Baum & Kernell, 1999).

Second, going local occurs when presidents pitch their policies to groups in cities and towns across the United States. The idea is for presidents to avoid the more negative and critical coverage of the Washington press corps and to appeal to local audiences, which generates more favorable and voluminous local news coverage (Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2006). Whereas the most common definition of going local is to travel to affect policy, others conceive of it as also including “going narrow” or targeting interest groups (even while speaking in Washington, DC) through speechmaking (Cohen, 2010) or fundraising to benefit the president’s reelection and party-building goals (Doherty, 2012).

Going local has increased significantly since the Reagan years. Ragsdale (2009) illustrates, for example, how presidential domestic public appearances held outside of Washington, DC, have increased sharply since 1986. Most famously, President George W. Bush took to the road, engaging in a “60 stops in 60 days” public campaign to reform Social Security. Although his efforts to build legislative and public support ultimately failed—with public support actually declining over his tour—the strategy was effective in generating news coverage, and especially positive local newspaper coverage, of his policy goals (Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2006). In all, going local is part of the president’s permanent campaign. It is designed to affect local media and local audiences, as well as their representatives, to achieve some goal, whether policy, popular support, or reelection.

Third, sustained attention incorporates all speeches into a strategy of presidential leadership. A sustained strategy requires the president to maintain focus on one policy priority, using his range of public resources to focus public, media, and legislative attention on it. It may include speeches that are part of a focused or going local strategy (and in all likelihood, it will, but it does not have to). A strategy of sustained leadership may begin with an announcement in the State of the Union address, but it carries over into other areas, such as local speeches, outreach to partisan or interest groups in Washington, DC, or even—as it might involve international trade or other foreign policy issues—speeches made abroad. Indeed, Bush’s Social Security reform tour encompassed going local, but he first introduced Social Security reform in his 2005 State of the Union address and spoke about his proposal to groups in Washington, DC, as well.

One reason for engaging in a strategy of sustained attention appears to be the larger and fragmented media environment. Presidents can no longer expect the sizeable, engaged national audiences they experienced before the rise of cable television (Baum & Kernell, 1999). As Americans have many choices for obtaining news—and a multitude of choices to avoid consuming it—presidents attempt to tap all available media to reach audiences where they are, not necessarily where the president wants them to be (see Heith, 2013). Furthermore, the public’s recall of the president’s policy proposals is likely to fade quickly from memory. Thus, a national address, however effective it might be in the short term, is not suited to maintaining the public’s focus without repetition and follow-up. Although presidents engage in a relentless pursuit of public support and indeed think that they must do so to achieve their goals, a successful strategy is unlikely given the president’s countless responsibilities, his limited capacity to attend to discretionary priorities, and the public’s general lack of interest in politics.

Leadership Effectiveness, by Target

Beyond the question of whether presidential leadership by going public is effective, is the question of which audiences are influenced by a president’s speeches. Undoubtedly, the general public is the president’s primary target in going public, and moving the public should help the president achieve his goals for adoption or implementation of public policy, for the success of his judicial nominations, or for the focus of news coverage. However, the success of going public is mixed and typically occurs at the margins.

The Public

The effectiveness of going public depends on successful leadership of the public. Scholars have assessed presidential success in leading the public in several ways. Research has focused considerably on what is arguably the most challenging task: presidential leadership of public opinion, with mixed benefits to the president. Framing issues before the public is a second, yet relatively new, topic in studies of presidential leadership of the public. If it is done well, presidents may be able to activate and engage public opinion without having to overcome the public’s existing predispositions and they may actually change the public’s preferred policy positions. The third measure of public leadership, presidential leadership of the public’s agenda, appears to be the most likely way for presidents to lead the public successfully.

One feature of public leadership is agenda setting, or influencing what the public thinks about or what issues they judge to be important. If the president’s leadership strategy is to influence the public’s agenda, typically measured as the percentage of the public that identifies an issue to be the most important problem facing the nation, then the president is likely to be effective. Presidents affect the public’s agenda through the State of the Union address (Cohen, 1995; Hill, 1998), through other major addresses (Behr & Iyengar, 1985), or through a strategy of sustained attention (Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2011). Yet, the decline in television audiences has tended to minimize the agenda-setting leadership of presidents since 1986 (Young & Perkins, 2005). Thus, the media environment plays an important conditioning role in the effectiveness of presidential agenda setting when the president cannot count on large television viewing audiences. Therefore, if the president can affect the media’s agenda, then, given the strong relationship between the media’s agenda and the public’s agenda (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987), presidents are likely to have at least indirect influence over the public’s agenda (Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2011).

A second feature of public leadership is how well presidential speeches move the public’s opinion on issues or their support for the president’s job performance. On these points, research shows presidential efforts have mixed results. Presidents have great difficulty in changing public preferences. Edwards (2003) offers the most comprehensive analysis of the inability of the president to sway public opinion, and he demonstrates this limitation across many issue areas, in different contexts, and for presidents who might have been expected to be talented enough to lead the public: Presidents Reagan and Clinton. Even specific national addresses held by the “Great Communicator” were insufficient to persuade the public (Welch, 2003). This line of research maintains that public predispositions are better predictors of public opinion than presidential speeches are (see Glaros & Miroff, 1983). Increased disagreement among elites (Berinsky, 2009) or foreign leaders (Hayes & Guardino, 2011) may also impede presidential leadership of public opinion.

The limits of presidential leadership of public opinion extend to the president’s job approval ratings. Just as Simon and Ostrom (1989) illustrate that neither major addresses nor foreign travel boost presidential approval, Jones (1999) finds that, between 1993 and 1994, Clinton’s domestic travel and public appearances had no positive impact on his job approval ratings. Even rally events, over which presidents may have some influence by using military force, for example, tend to be rare and have limited benefits to presidential approval (Edwards with Gallup, 1990, pp. 147–149).

Nevertheless, there is some evidence that presidents can affect both policy preferences and job approval, with major addresses (a focused strategy of leadership) having the largest benefit to the president. Concerning leadership of public opinion, major addresses tend to boost public support slightly for the president’s domestic and foreign policy positions, even as this effect appears to have waned for presidents since the Carter Administration (Rottinghaus, 2010). A Republican president may even be able to increase public support among Democrats after having delivered an Oval Office address (Tedin, Rottinghaus, & Rodgers, 2011). These effects tend to occur only in the short term and among those who watch the president (Cavari, 2013; see Welch, 2003). Furthermore, although Reagan may not have successfully led the mass public with his national addresses, West (1988) shows that Reagan mobilized activists in legislators’ districts, motivating at least this group of citizens to contact and influence legislators. Reagan also increased support for his actions in Lebanon and Grenada with national addresses (Rosenblatt, 1998). The benefits of major addresses extend to increases in the president’s job approval ratings. Ragsdale (1987) shows, for example, that nationally televised addresses delivered by presidents from Lyndon Johnson through Ronald Reagan led to increases in presidential approval ratings across a range of income groups and party-identifiers for all presidents except Nixon. Brace and Hinckley (1993) report similar results.

Considering all rhetoric, Wood (2007) illustrates how the president’s public optimism about the economy improves consumer confidence and, ultimately, objective economic conditions. Presidential rhetoric can have an adverse effect on public confidence in the economy, however, if presidents engage in saber-rattling (Wood, 2009a). This adverse effect may be less of a concern for a president whose immediate goal is to build support for his foreign policy agenda. At least for the war in Iraq, all presidential speeches positively affected public support for the war, especially among Democrats (Baum & Groeling, 2010, chapter 7). Even if presidents are unable to move the public from opposition to support, they can shift the intensity of the public’s existing support for policy (Bailey, Sigelman, & Wilcox, 2003) and appear to be most effective in leading the public when they are popular (Page & Shapiro, 1987).

Successful leadership extends to the impact of other public activities on presidential approval ratings. Wood (2009b, chapter 6) notes that presidents who take public positions on issues supported by the mass public or who speak more optimistically about the economy (Wood, 2007) enjoy higher approval ratings. Cohen and Powell (2005) illustrate that presidential travel to a large state increases that state’s support for his job performance, but only in non-election years. At the very least, presidents have opportunities to shape their approval ratings, given that ratings tend to increase or decrease over the course of an administration (Ostrom & Simon, 1988). Yet, as Edwards’ (2003, pp. 30–32) analysis of presidential approval ratings since Reagan shows, it is likely that even the positive effects are time bound. Furthermore, declining audiences after the golden age of presidential television (Baum & Kernell, 1999) and increasing fragmentation of national news audiences indicate that future presidents will continue to have relatively weak effects on public opinion. What is more, those who do watch the president are increasingly predisposed to support the president’s position, further reducing the effectiveness of a national address as a vehicle for changing public opinion (Kernell & Rice, 2011).

A third feature of public leadership is framing. Although presidents may be limited in moving the public’s opinion on policy issues, they may be able to frame issues in a way that activates the public’s existing favorable opinions. Indeed, much of the president’s public leadership is learning what the public approves of in his policy proposals and crafting rhetoric to reflect this (Jacobs & Shapiro, 2000). Viewers of presidential addresses are also likely to approve of the president’s job performance (Druckman & Holmes, 2004), even though this positive impact is likely to fade quickly (Eshbaugh-Soha, 2014). Simply referencing the president in a survey question may lead to a positive (Mondak, 1993) or negative (Sigelman & Sigelman, 1981) public response, depending on how the public views that president. It is likely that presidential effects hurt presidents who hope to move those who are predisposed to disagree with them, because party loyalties overcome frame strength in a polarized political environment (Druckman, Peterson, & Slothuus, 2013).

News Media

Presidents have many reasons to lead news coverage as part of their larger strategy of public outreach, agenda setting, and goal achievement (Kumar, 2007). Although presidents prefer voluminous and positive news coverage regardless of any added benefit, media also intervene in the president’s ability to lead the public. At the same time, the primarily negative news coverage presidents receive (Farnsworth & Lichter, 2006) undermines the media as a reliable partner in public leadership, and is still one of the reasons why the national address provides the best opportunity for presidential leadership of the public, at least among those who watch. Given the diminishing returns of using national addresses to lead the public (Baum & Kernell, 1999; Kernell & Rice, 2011; Young & Perkins, 2005), however, successful leadership of the public may be contingent on successful leadership of the news media. If presidents are to be effective in leading the public—whether their agendas or their preferences—news coverage should reflect the president’s agenda and, preferably, report on it positively. Existing scholarship is much more pessimistic about the likelihood that media will cover presidents the way presidents want.

Presidential leadership of the news starts with effective agenda building, or whether presidential speeches dictate the news agenda. Initial research showed that, for all presidential speeches and on many broad policy areas, new coverage dictates whether presidents will speak to those issues (Edwards & Wood, 1999). This also holds for foreign policy issues (Wood & Peake, 1998) and the economy (Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2005). Even so, presidents are more likely to lead the news agenda on foreign policy issues not previously salient (Peake, 2001) or on domestic policy issues on which presidents are first movers (Edwards & Wood, 1999). Indeed, prior salience is a prime determinant of a president’s leadership of the news, as might be expected. Simply, if an issue, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has saturated the news for years, the president is unlikely to find an opportunity to get out in front of that news coverage to lead it. Furthermore, if an issue persists on the agenda without much progress, the issue appears intractable and too complex for a going public strategy to be effective and, thus, it is unlikely to be used.

Successfully leading the news agenda varies by strategy and type of media. Going local is a particularly effective way to generate news in local, regional, and national newspapers (Barrett & Peake, 2007; Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2006). Indeed, presidents who deliver more speeches overall increase the number of daily newspapers stories on the presidency (Cohen, 2010, p. 116). Going local by targeting particular news audiences also matters; for example, presidents who spoke about immigration policy in border states were more likely to influence Spanish-language television news (Eshbaugh-Soha & Balarezo, 2014).

The president’s leadership of the news agenda may also occur through nationally televised addresses. Even though Peake and Eshbaugh-Soha (2008) illustrate that presidential addresses can affect the network television news agenda, these effects are not consistent for all speeches, vary by policy area, and tend to follow prior public concern. Nevertheless, major addresses dictate New York Times coverage (Cohen, 2008), particularly longer addresses or those delivered in prime time (Bradshaw, Coe, & Neumann, 2014).

Other speeches, whether lumped together or examined separately, produced varied benefits for presidents. Presidents can lead the television news agenda on economic issues, particularly when they are not previously salient, like deficit and spending issues, but respond to foreign policy issues, like Iraq (Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2011, chapter 5). Although Cohen (2010) shows that press conferences have no significant impact on the amount of presidential newspaper coverage, Eshbaugh-Soha (2013) finds that television news broadcasts rely heavily on the president’s own words when they cover press conferences. Radio addresses have limited effects on news coverage, too. Cohen (2010, p. 116) shows that a radio address leads to more newspaper coverage, but the agenda-setting impact of radio addresses on newspaper coverage has decreased over time (Horvit, Schiffer, & Wright, 2008). Barrett (2007) shows that public appeals on only the president’s top legislative priorities typically influence national newspaper coverage. Even executive orders affect New York Times coverage across issue areas (Boydstun, 2013).

In addition to influencing the amount of coverage, presidents can affect its tone. Despite the increasing negativity of presidential news coverage over time (Cohen, 2008), the impact of presidential leadership on the tone of news coverage varies by strategy. Accounting for all presidential speeches, Cohen (2010, p. 169) argues that only by saturating the media environment with seven or more hits in the public papers (including speeches, proclamations, statements, executive orders) do presidents exact more positive coverage out of newspapers. Since such a daily effort in speechmaking is rare, the correct conclusion may be that presidents are unlikely to generate positive news coverage of their speeches in newspapers. Moreover, despite offering presidents the chance to speak more optimistically (Hart, Childers, & Lind, 2013, chapter 5), radio addresses actually lead to more negative coverage in regional newspapers (Cohen, 2010, p. 165).


According to Kernell’s (2007) theory of going public, Congress is the ultimate target of presidential leadership. For Kernell (2007), presidents make public appeals to put pressure on legislators to support their policy agendas. Presidents are able to motivate the public not only to support the president’s proposals but also to contact their legislators to support the president. Assuming Kernell’s (2007) theory, Barrett (2004) shows, indeed, that more presidential speeches on important bills increase the likelihood of the president’s success on roll-call votes in both the House and Senate. Yet, because presidents are not moving public opinion (or rarely, if that) (Edwards, 2003), the reason why presidential success increases with more appeals may not follow from Kernell’s reasoning. Absent a strong link between the president and public opinion, it is highly unlikely that presidents are leading Congress in the manner that this research implies.

Canes-Wrone (2006) solves this puzzle through her theory of presidential leadership of legislation through public appeals. According to Canes-Wrone, presidents issue public appeals strategically. They target policies that the public already supports and use their public rhetoric to raise the salience—and threat of opposing the president—of those issues to legislators. Of course, it is not as if presidents are opportunistic, targeting only those policies that are most likely to pass Congress. Rather, they act strategically not by picking any policy that may pass, but by targeting those issues most likely to benefit from existing public support. This approach is consistent with growing evidence that presidential leadership of the public’s agenda is more likely to occur than leadership of the public’s preferences, and helps reconcile the lack of success presidents have in moving public opinion with sustained evidence that public speeches increase a president’s legislative success rate (see Edwards, 2009).

Although Canes-Wrone (2006) provides what is the most likely theoretical explanation for the relationship between public appeals and increased success in Congress, it has its limits. Most precisely, the findings center on changes in budgetary appropriations and, given limitations in finding reliable public opinion data on substantive policies (e.g., support for health care reform, clean air regulations, or charitable choice), it is difficult to apply this theory to other areas. Indeed, others set aside public opinion altogether and argue that presidential speeches signal the president’s commitment to a policy, which shapes the likelihood that a legislator will respond to speeches (Eshbaugh-Soha, 2006). Still other research shows that the content of the policy matters most to the impact of public appeals on the president’s legislative success (Villalobos, Vaughn, & Azari, 2012). When presidents are able to lead the legislative policy agenda, such as after they deliver their State of the Union address, the impact is only likely to occur for a few months (Lovett, Bevan, & Baumgartner, 2015).

The study of going public vis-à-vis Congress moves beyond the adoption of policy, and extends to presidential leadership of judicial nominees. Borrowing Kernell’s theoretical framework, Maltese (1995) shows how Reagan attempted to influence the confirmation of his judicial nominations, particularly Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, by going public. Subsequent research on the impact of going public on nominees is mixed. Although Krutz, Fleisher, and Bond (1998), who simultaneously examined executive branch nominations, and Johnson and Roberts (2004) demonstrate that going public increases the likelihood of confirmation, Holmes (2007) and Cameron and Park (2011) find that going public is negatively related to the success of a nomination in the Senate. Even though the number of public appeals on behalf of judicial nominees has increased, beginning in the Reagan years, going public on behalf of judicial nominees is still a rare event.


Although an afterthought in presidential power and effectively ignored by much of the previous research on presidential speeches and their impact on policy, the bureaucracy is also a target of presidential leadership. Just as divided government and legislative gridlock have encouraged presidents to reach out to the public to achieve their legislative goals (Kernell, 2007), so too have these conditions encouraged presidents to engage in an administrative strategy to lead the bureaucracy to realize policy goals (Nathan, 1983). Much research shows the effectiveness of this strategy (Wood & Waterman, 1994). Very little research examines whether public appeals lead bureaucratic activity.

Two works show presidential leadership of bureaucratic policy activities, but through slightly different mechanisms. First, Whitford and Yates (2009) trace presidential speeches as an agenda-setting tool of bureaucratic priorities. They argue that presidents use their public rhetoric to communicate a clear and consistent vision of their policy preferences. In turn, presidents who set the national public agenda with their public speeches—for example, on the war on drugs—can affect the behavior of federal bureaucrats charged with carrying out national drug policies.

Second, Eshbaugh-Soha (2006) examines the tone of policy rhetoric and finds that positive speeches increase the morale of federal agencies. This leads bureaucrats to do more of what they do, which increases measureable outputs of that agency. In particular, positive signals about civil rights and clean air increased the number of criminal enforcements prosecuted by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the level of Environmental Protection Agency clean air monitoring activity, respectively. The impact of public speeches on the bureaucracy is restricted to agencies that implement salient policies and does not extend to negative public rhetoric.

The Courts and Interest Groups

Of the remaining audiences that presidents could target with their public rhetoric, two are relatively unexplored. First, although presidents have spoken relatively frequently about the US Supreme Court generally (Blackstone & Goelzhauser, 2014), and US Supreme Court cases specifically (Eshbaugh-Soha & Collins, 2015), going public as a leadership strategy to influence Supreme Court decisions is rare (Collins & Eshbaugh-Soha, 2015). In fact, when presidents speak about pending cases, it is unlikely that they are doing so to influence Court decisions, given the timing of their remarks (which mostly occur after oral arguments) and the fact that the Office of the Solicitor General is the primary institutional force behind presidential success before the Court. Second, we know even less about presidential speeches that might target interest groups. Although Cohen (2010, p. 42) references “going narrow” as a presidential leadership strategy, one that targets interest groups, he only notes that non-major presidential speeches have increased over time (without coding specifically which speeches target interest groups) and does not evaluate the impact of these speeches on some measureable outcome.


When presidents go public, they target a range of institutions both in and outside of American government. Although the initial view that going public offered presidents a novel opportunity to move public opinion and achieve heightened legislative success has met with mixed support, going public is a relatively effective leadership strategy overall. Part of this success depends on the strategic behavior of presidents. If presidents strategically target issues already supported by the public, then they are likely to increase their success on those issues before Congress, and without having to accomplish what is much more difficult: moving public preferences on those issues. Moreover, presidents whose goal is agenda leadership, not opinion leadership, are more likely to position themselves to affect others and achieve their goals.

Going Public as Responsiveness

Although going public is preeminently a strategy of presidential leadership, knowing what motivates presidents to engage in that strategy is also relevant to a full appreciation of the public presidency. Just as Kernell (2007) shows how presidents have been effective in using their speeches to influence the public and to increase their legislative success, for example, he also explains why presidents rely increasingly on speeches to achieve their policy goals in Congress. Thus, research on going public also centers on what explains speechmaking and why presidents might respond using speeches, whether or not they lead successfully with them.

What Explains Presidential Speechmaking

By all accounts, presidents have increased their level of public activities dramatically since the Nixon Administration (see, Kernell, 2007; Hager & Sullivan, 1994; Ragsdale, 2009). The reasons why presidents may have increased their speechmaking have varied. Kernell (2007) argues that presidents responded to changing conditions in Congress and the electoral environment. Greater congressional decentralization and a decentralized presidential nomination process encouraged presidents to speak more frequently. Yet Powell (1999) does not find support for these expectations. Divided government, in fact, had no impact on presidential speechmaking, also contrary to Kernell’s expectations (but see Hart, 1987).

Still others attribute the increases in speechmaking to broader political and contextual factors, including the growing institutionalization of the White House. Hager and Sullivan (1994) show, for example, that technological changes in communication and travel facilitated an increase in speeches. Moreover, their finding that presidency-centered factors better explain annual speech counts than president-centered factors suggests that the institutionalization of the presidency is a prime reason for the increase. Individual presidents still choose the type of public remark. For example, Presidents Bush and Clinton gave significantly more press conferences than their predecessors even after controlling for political variables (Eshbaugh-Soha, 2003). Given continued diversification in the ways in which presidents engage in public relations in the post-broadcast age of American politics, it makes sense to conclude that continued changes in communications technology will further alter the types of speeches presidents make, and to whom they deliver them (Heith, 2013).

Other factors tend to explain the propensity for presidents to deliver specific types of speeches. Changes in public approval, prominent events, and the state of the economy increase both the likelihood that a president will deliver a national address in any given month (Ragsdale, 1984) and the number of monthly policy speeches (Eshbaugh-Soha, 2010). In addition to explaining the likelihood that a public appeal may increase the president’s success in Congress, Canes-Wrone (2001) also determines that a proposal’s popularity among the public and a lower likelihood of congressional passage both increase the likelihood of a speech. Rottinghaus (2006) shows that presidents respond to various factors in their public speechmaking and tend to take public positions that are typically congruent with existing public opinion.

A small body of research also explains when presidents are likely to go public on behalf of their judicial nominees. Johnson and Roberts (2004) show that presidents are more likely to go public on Supreme Court nominations when the nominee and president are ideologically distant from the Senate, and when the nominee is likely to move the median justice on the Court away from the Senate. Holmes (2007, 2008) extended these findings to US Court of Appeals judges, showing that the frequency of public utterances is minimal, but has increased over time, and is driven in large part by the vulnerability of the nomination in the Senate. Most recently, Cameron and Park (2011) found that presidents since 1980 go public more frequently than their predecessors and a scandalous nomination (e.g., Bork or Thomas) increases public remarks on a nominee. Even so, the president’s job approval has no impact on public attention to Supreme Court nominees. Taken as a whole, it appears that presidents go public on nominees when their leadership is most needed, which occurs when their nominees are in danger of failing to be confirmed.

Concerning the remaining targets reviewed in the previous section, there is very little research. First, although the majority of presidential references to Supreme Court cases are in response to decisions, and are not intended to affect judicial policymaking in the way that presidents might attempt to lead Congress (Eshbaugh-Soha & Collins 2015), presidents only occasionally respond to the Supreme Court’s policy agenda through their speeches (Flemming, Bohte, & Wood, 1997; Flemming, Wood, & Bohte, 1999). Second, it is likely that presidents make some speeches in response to interest groups, perhaps similarly to how legislators respond to interest group “fire alarms” (McCubbins & Schwartz, 1984; but see Aberbach, 1990), but no research supports this claim. Third, research on presidential responsiveness to bureaucratic activity is similarly scarce.

Why Presidents Respond

Frequent speechmaking is a mainstay of the modern presidency. Just as most research on going public explores whether presidents can lead the public and other institutions through speeches, it is equally plausible that presidents are responding to them in their public comments. After all, presidents are not the first movers of all things in politics, they do not dictate world events, and they cannot anticipate the issues to which the public and media may direct their attention. Therefore, presidential responsiveness is also a central feature of going public.

There are two primary reasons why a complete consideration of going public as a leadership strategy should also include an assessment of responsiveness. First, research may overstate the ineffectiveness of presidential speeches if it focuses solely on whether the president leads, or affects others, with speeches. Without question, presidents have much difficulty directing others by speaking (Edwards, 2003) and we are unlikely to find evidence of presidential leadership of the public’s agenda if, for example, the public is already concerned with an issue. Yet, presidents may still be acting consistent with public expectations if they respond to public concerns through their rhetoric. Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake (2011) argue that going public may still be considered a successful strategy of presidential governance absent leadership effects if presidents are at least responding to issues of public concern in their rhetoric. The economy is often such an issue, with presidents and other policymakers engaging in highly responsive behavior once public concern about a poor economy rises. If presidents respond to the public’s concerns through speechmaking, they have acted democratically, even if such a situation precludes observing that the president has led the public’s agenda.

Second, most theories of presidential leadership of Congress through speechmaking are premised on presidential responsiveness to public opinion. This is Canes-Wrone’s (2001) theory, that presidents issue public appeals strategically or when the public already supports the issues the president addresses. It is also buttressed by the work of Brandon Rottinghaus (2006), who shows that presidents are responsive to public opinion, taking public positions most often that are congruent with mass public support. Moreover, the president’s success in the legislative (and possibly other) arenas (which presumably is a function, at least in part, of presidential leadership), feeds back into the public’s perception of the president as strong or weak (Cohen, 2015), which in turn may influence the president’s future ability to be an effective leader.

Future Research in an Era of Polarized Politics and New Media

The bulk of the literature on going public is quite clear that presidents engage strategically in speechmaking to affect a variety of actors and institutions. Although evidence varies by strategy, approach, and target, going public, whether to engage in leadership to influence others, or to meet public expectations by responding to issues of national concern, remains the central governing strategy of modern presidents. Research has only begun to explore changes in the political communications environment, however, and any effects that increased polarization in American politics may have on strategies for going public. (See Abramowitz & Saunders [2008] and Fiorina, Abrams, & Pope [2011] for a broader debate on polarization.) Future research will need to focus on three considerations.

First, whom does the president lead? One unstated assumption in the literature on going public is that presidents target or respond to mass public opinion in their public appeals. Is it the nation to whom the president speaks, or does the president attempt to lead partisans? Although the latter seem more likely in an age of polarization, Wood (2009b) argues that presidents have always been more responsive to partisan opinion, not the least because the mass public moves away from the president’s position as the president attempts to lead (see Edwards, 2012). Others contend that presidents target partisan, not centrist, issue positions when they go public (Eshbaugh-Soha & Rottinghaus, 2013), as suggested by the centrist models subscribed to by others (Canes-Wrone & Shotts, 2004). Although research is not definitive as to the effects of increased partisanship on presidential leadership, scholarship may have to reconsider our central theoretical assumptions if we have indeed entered an era of partisan presidency (Skinner, 2008).

Second, how does the president lead Congress? Even if presidents speak the same amount as they have in previous eras, perhaps presidents will engage in more traditional bargaining so long as they govern under unified government. After all, if Congress is more polarized, then a unified Congress may be even more likely to agree with a president of the majority party. To this end, presidents may have less need to appeal to the public, but can “stay private” (see Covington, 1987), negotiating with key leaders in Congress to achieve legislative goals. Naturally, the president will speak, if only to meet public expectations that he do so. Yet, these speeches may target narrow groups (see Cohen, 2010), or become more partisan if members of the opposition party are unreceptive to the president’s agenda.

Third, how do new media shape going public as a leadership strategy? Along with the polarization of political discourse has been the rise of new media, many of which are partisan in their leaning. Yet, very little research has explored the confounding factors that new media technologies have had on the impact of going public. There is some minimal evidence that varied news sources still cover the president’s agenda consistently (Baum & Groeling, 2008), and that the diversification of new media may not have the wide and varied impacts that some have suggested (Hindman, 2009), both of which may help the president’s public outreach. Yet, it is highly likely, as Heith’s (2013) own work implies, that a president’s target and means of reaching that target will continue to evolve as communications technologies also develop.


Going public is a central feature of presidential leadership. It involves presidential public relations, especially speechmaking, to influence, but also respond to, key actors and institutions in American politics. Just as much research shows limited direct effects of going public, presidents who act strategically and take advantage of existing political conditions should be able to parlay their public speechmaking into increased legislative success and leadership of the news and public agendas. Presidents may also respond to the concerns of others through their public activities, an important feature of democratic governance. Just as we know a great deal about going public as a leadership strategy for modern presidents, recent changes to communications technology and political polarization provide countless opportunities to explore further the strategy of going public and its continued relevance to presidential leadership.

Further Reading

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  • Canes-Wrone, B. (2006). Who leads whom? Presidents, policy, and the public. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Cohen, J. E. (1997). Presidential responsiveness and public policymaking. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Cohen, J. E. (2010). Going local: Presidential leadership in the post-broadcast age. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Doherty, B. J. (2012). The rise of the president’s permanent campaign. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
  • Edwards, G. C., III (2003). On deaf ears: The limits of the bully pulpit. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Edwards, G. C., III. (2009). The strategic president: Persuasion and opportunity in presidential leadership. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Eshbaugh-Soha, M., & Peake, J. S. (2011). Breaking through the noise: Presidential leadership, public opinion, and the news media. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Heith, D. J. (2013). The Presidential road show: Public leadership in an era of party polarization and media fragmentation. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Kernell, S. (2007). Going public: New strategies of presidential leadership (4th ed.). Washington, DC: CQ Press.
  • Kumar, M. J. (2007). Managing the president’s message: The White House communications operation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Laracey, M. (2002). Presidents and the people: The partisan story of going public. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
  • Neustadt, R. E. (1990). Presidential power and the modern presidents: The politics of leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan. New York: The Free Press.
  • Rottinghaus, B. (2010). The provisional pulpit: Modern presidential leadership of public opinion. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
  • Vaughn, J. S., & Mercieca, J. R. (Eds.). (2014). The rhetoric of heroic expectations: Establishing the Obama presidency. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.


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