Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lit in Review: Presidential Speeches

I've been diving into the poli sci literature related to a paper where I attempt to measure the political will of various governments to reduce hunger. One of the measures relies on a content analysis of the speeches made by delegates to the World Food Summit. Here are four papers related to the effects of US Presidential speeches (working from home, my access to the online versions of papers is lacking, so no links today):

1) Ragsdale (1984), "The Politics of Presidential Speechmaking,"Am. Poli. Sci. Review, Vol. 78, 971-984.

2) Cummins (2008), "State of the Union addresses and presidential position taking: Do presidents back their rhetoric in the legislative arena?" Soc. Sci. J., Vol. 45, 365-381.

3) Wood (2009), "Presidential Saber Rattling and the Economy," Am. J. of Poli. Sci., Vol. 53, No. 3, 695-709.

4) Peake Eshbaugh-Soha (2008), "The Agenda-Setting Impact of Major Presidential TV Addresses," Political Communication, Vol. 25, 113-137.
1) Ragsdale identifies when major (prime time), discretionary (not inaugural or SotU) presidential speeches occur and some of their, mostly political, effects. Speeches are more likely to occur when larger changes in presidential popularity occur and when military involvements goes down; Democratic presidents are less likely to make major speeches during periods of high inflation; Republican presidents during period of higher unemployment. He also finds that major speeches provide a sizable bump up in President approval ratings: 3% for Democrats, 4% for Republicans [and remember, the Great Communicator isn't in the data set!]

"Presidents make decisions not to speak, in addition to their decisions to speak. This silence of a kind may indicate that presidents are seeking to avoid a discussion of the deteriorating conditions or of their efforts to deal with the conditions. ... If success occurs, it often occurs in increments not easily touted in dramatic presidential pronouncements. If success is not forthcoming, it is better left understated or not stated at all" (p. 977).

After the modeling and regressions, though, his concluding quotation and thought almost don't fit. The quotation is from a vacuous Lyndon Johnson speech where Ragsdale indicates "nothing concrete" is proposed. "Indeed, the content or the occasion of the speech may have been secondary to the speech as a symbolic expression of community" (p. 983). Speeches are also "rituals of the whole." It's something I might to consider in future work on the value of international summits: summits as 'rituals of the whole.'

2) Cummins' measures of presidential influence are relatively subtle. Does the President attempt to influence legislative bills and amendments by indicating his position on them publicly in a way that is consistent with stated policy objectives from State of the Union addresses? He shows that Congress is more likely to defer to presidents on matters of foreign policy while presidents are less likely to have their own way with health care and social legislation. When presidents are confident of getting their way, they are more likely to make their position explicit (ie - attempt to influence legislation). So Presidents support their SotU positions in foreign policy more often than their social positions. Thus, the presidential speech is a good measure of what the president wants and is willing to work for, but presidential effort is also affected by the probability of success of any given measure.

3) This is the only paper where presidential speeches have direct effects on economic variables. Presidential saber rattling in speeches (measured as the number of times key phrases are used in sentences in speeches, coded by computers and humans) increases economic uncertainty which leads economic agents to change their actions. The media play a role in giving saber rattling more attention than other presidential pronouncements. VAR methods reveal that presidential saber rattling significantly decreases consumer confidence temporarily, consumption for 1-2 years, interest rates for 1-2 years, and economic performance briefly. His results also provides only weak support to the notion that presidents focus on foreign policy in order to distract people from domestic problems.

Combining 3 with 2 suggests that presidential claims about foreign policy have more salience all over the place: it causes direct effects on economic variables in part because presidents are more likely to have their way in Congress and so follow through with their threats.

4) Peake and Eshbaugh-Soha find less evidence than expected, however, on presidents' ability to direct media attention to the topics they want for extended periods of time. Only 35% of president's national addresses on four policy areas briefly increased media attention to the topic, and only 10% for more than a month. Thus, presidents' agenda-setting ability may be more limited through major addresses than previously believed.

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