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Thursday, September 8, 2011

President Obama, Hard Times, and the Bully Pulpit

In our chapter on the presidency, we discuss the "bully pulpit" and explain that public communication is a major focus of the contemporary White House (pp. 448-452). President Obama's address on the economy is an occasion to extend this discussion by looking at recent research. At the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Donna Hoffman and Alison D. Howard presented a paper titled, "Presidents and the Rhetoric of Recessions." The abstract says:
Are presidents reticent during recessions? Some research indicates that presidents make fewer major and minor speeches when economic conditions worsen (Ragsdale 1984; Eshbaugh-Soha 2010). We examine whether this holds true with major discretionary speeches utilizing recessions as the indicator of poor economic conditions. In addition, we also investigate the subject matter of major discretionary speeches given during both economic expansions and contractions. Presidents potentially have an incentive during a recession to focus the attention of the public away from economic concerns, where they have little command and control ability, to foreign policy, where they do have more power to act unilaterally. We find that presidents are not reticent during recessions. During recessions, fewer average months elapse between major discretionary speeches than we find elapse during economic expansions. Furthermore, while presidents never talk about the economy at high rates overall, they do focus more than twice as many major discretionary speeches on economic topics during recessions than they do during expansions. We also find no evidence that presidents attempt to ratchet up the rate at which they discuss foreign policy during recessions in an attempt to divert attention from economic matters.