The Permanent Campaign: Why Does the President Go Public?
An excerpt from On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit.
No president ever invested more in attempting to mold public opinion than Bill Clinton. His was a presidency based on a perpetual campaign to obtain the public's support-a campaign fed by public opinion polls, focus groups, and public relations memos. The White House even polled voters on where it was best for the First Family to vacation. In 1995, the White House spent an unprecedented $18 million in advertising on behalf of the president-a year before the presidential election.
Public leadership dominated the policy-making process in the Clinton White House, serving as both the focus of the president's energies and the criterion by which it evaluated itself. In a typical year, Clinton spoke in public 550 times, and he traveled around the county every fourth day. Equally important, the administration repeatedly interpreted its setbacks, whether in elections or on such policies as health care reform, in terms of its failure to communicate rather than in terms of the quality of its initiatives or its strategy for governing.
Although it may have been on the extreme end of the spectrum, the Clinton administration's focus on public leadership did not represent a sharp break with the past. Ronald Reagan took office oriented to using his communications skills to persuade the public and thus the Congress to do his bidding. The Clinton White House was merely the latest stage in an evolution that can be traced back to Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
Presidents clearly believe that they need to lead the public, and they "go public" more than ever, depending on a steadily expanding White House public relations infrastructure to take their messages to the American people. In 1976, pollster Patrick Caddell wrote a memo to President-elect Jimmy Carter titled, "Initial Working Paper on Political Strategy." In it Caddell argued that "governing with public approval requires a continuing [italics added] political campaign." He also suggested implementing a working group to begin planning the 1980 presidential campaign.
Leading the public is at the core of the modern presidency. Even as they try to govern, presidents are involved in a permanent campaign. Both politics and policy revolve around presidents' attempts to garner public support, both for themselves and for their policies. The division between campaigning and governing has become obscured. Indeed, governing often seems little more than an extension of the campaign that won the president his office in the first place. Both candidate and president travel widely for political purposes, appear frequently before organized constituencies, make extensive use of television, commission an endless stream of polls, and constantly brief the press. Summing up much of the modern presidency, journalist Sidney Blumenthal declared, "For the Reagan White House, every night is election night on television."
As Bill Clinton reflected on the results of the 1994 elections, he concluded that the principal cause of the Democrats' stunning defeat was neither his presidency nor his policies. Instead, the main problem was communication. He had achieved a great deal, he felt, but the public neither recognized nor appreciated his accomplishments. He had failed to communicate them, and "the role of the President of the United States is message." "I got caught up in the parliamentary aspect of the presidency," he said, "and missed the leadership, bully pulpit function which is so critical."
President Clinton's remark reflects three fundamental and widely shared premises about presidential leadership. The first is that public support is a crucial political resource for the president. It is difficult for others who hold power to deny the legitimate demands of a president with popular support. A president who lacks the public's support is likely to face frustration and perhaps humiliation at the hands of his opponents. As Clinton exclaimed after he was acquitted in his impeachment trial, "Thank god for public opinion."
The second premise manifested in Clinton's comments is the view that the president must not only earn public support with his performance in office, but also must actively take his case to the people. Moreover, he must do it not only at reelection time but all the time. Richard Nixon was perhaps the first president to adopt the view of the need for a permanent campaign, remarking to domestic advisor John Ehrlichman that "Great ideas that are conceived and not sold are like babies that are stillborn." Thus, Nixon institutionalized units devoted to public relations in the White House.
More recent presidents have taken Nixon's increased emphasis on public relations a step further. Clinton advisor Dick Morris explained the basis of their thinking: "Once upon a time, elections settled things for the term of office. Now, they are mere punctuation marks in an ongoing search for public support and a functioning majority. Each day is election day in modern America... A politician needs a permanent campaign to keep a permanent majority." Another Clinton communications advisor, Sidney Blumenthal, agreed: "Under the permanent campaign, governing is turned into a perpetual campaign... What was once a forced march for votes becomes unceasing forays for public approval."
The president's third premise [is] that through the permanent campaign the White House can successfully persuade or even mobilize the public... Commentators on the presidency in both the press and the academy often assume that the White House can move public opinion if the president has the skill and will to effectively exploit the "bully pulpit." In Blumenthal's words, in the permanent campaign "the citizenry is viewed as a mass of fluid voters who can be appeased by appearances, occasional drama, and clever rhetoric." Even those who lament the "plebiscitary presidency" may base their analyses on the premise of the president having established a direct and persuasive relationship with the public.
Equally important, those in the White House share the premise of the potential of presidential leadership of the public. David Gergen, an experienced White House communications advisor, favorably cites Winston Churchill's assertion that "of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world." He goes on to add that Ronald Reagan turned television "into a powerful weapon to achieve his legislative goals." Sidney Blumenthal agreed, declaring that Reagan had "stunning success in shaping public opinion," which in turn was central to transforming his ideas into law.
Similarly, in interviews in the 1990s, Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro found among both White House and congressional staff widespread confidence in the president's ability to lead the public. Evidently President Clinton shared this view, as his aides reported that he exhibited an "unbelievable arrogance" regarding his ability to change public opinion and felt he could "create new political capital all the time" through going public-a hubris echoed by his aides.
The assurance with which presidents, scholars, and journalists accept the assumption of the potential of presidential public leadership belies our lack of understanding of that leadership... [W]e actually know very little about the effect of the president's persuasive efforts because we have focused on the stimulus rather than the response in examining presidential public leadership.
For example, there is a substantial and rapidly increasing body of literature focusing on presidential rhetoric. Underlying most of this research is the premise that the president can employ rhetoric to move the public. An individual president may be ineffective and fail to move opinion, but the potential is there. The authors of these fine works concentrate on analyzing what the president said. In the process, they make numerous inferences regarding the effect of the president's rhetoric on public opinion. However, scholars of presidential rhetoric virtually never provide evidence for their inferences about the president's effect.
Yet one of the crowning ironies of the contemporary presidency is that at the same time that presidents increasingly attempt to govern by campaigning-"going public"-public support for presidential policies is elusive, perhaps more than ever before. President Clinton was not alone in his frustration with communicating with the public. In the century since Theodore Roosevelt declared the White House a "bully pulpit," presidents have often found the public unresponsive to issues at the top of the White House's agenda and unreceptive to requests to think about, much less act on, political matters. When asked about his "biggest disappointment as president," George [H. W.] Bush replied, "I just wasn't a good enough communicator."...
If the frustration that presidents often experience in their efforts to obtain the public's support were nothing more than an irritating cost of doing the job, then public leadership would be a topic of only passing interest to political scientists, historians, and journalists. Governing by campaigning is much more important than that, however. The way presidents attempt to govern, and their success in doing so, has profound consequences for politics and public policy.