The Public Presidency

GOING PUBLIC: PROMISE AND PITFALLS

The concept of going public involves the president delivering a major television address in the hope that Americans watching the address will be compelled to contact their House and Senate member and that such public pressure will result in the legislators supporting the president on a major piece of legislation. Technological advances have made it more efficient for presidents to take their messages directly to the people than was the case before mass media (Figure). Presidential visits can build support for policy initiatives or serve political purposes, helping the president reward supporters, campaign for candidates, and seek reelection. It remains an open question, however, whether choosing to go public actually enhances a president’s political position in battles with Congress. Political scientist George C. Edwards goes so far as to argue that taking a president’s position public serves to polarize political debate, increase public opposition to the president, and complicate the chances to get something done. It replaces deliberation and compromise with confrontation and campaigning. Edwards believes the best way for presidents to achieve change is to keep issues private and negotiate resolutions that preclude partisan combat. Going public may be more effective in rallying supporters than in gaining additional support or changing minds.George C. Edwards. 2016. Predicting the Presidency: The Potential of Persuasive Leadership. Princeton: Princeton University Press; George C. Edwards and Stephen J. Wayne. 2003. Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

A photo of Ronald Reagan giving a speech in Berlin.
With the advent of video technology and cable television, the power of the president to reach huge audiences increased exponentially. President Ronald Reagan, shown here giving one of his most famous speeches in Berlin, was an expert at using technology to help mold and project his presidential image to the public. His training as an actor certainly helped in this regard.
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Today, it is possible for the White House to take its case directly to the people via websites like White House Live, where the public can watch live press briefings and speeches.