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The Right Tool for the Job: The Canalization of Presidential Policy Attention by Policy Instrument


Heather A. Larsen-Price is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Memphis.


This article investigates how presidential policy attention is allocated across policy tools and whether there is a channeling of tool use by policy area. I also examine whether there is evidence of disproportionate information processing within presidential policy attention allocation and whether it is common across presidential policy tools. Presidential messages, hearings on administrations' legislative proposals, amicus briefs, and executive orders are employed to capture presidential policy tools. The allocation of attention via these four instruments is examined from 1957–2007 in the policy areas of defense and foreign affairs, macroeconomics, banking and commerce, civil rights, law and crime, and labor and immigration. I find that there is a canalization of presidential policy attention by instrument, and that the opportunity structure of policy tools shapes attention allocation. Additionally, I find evidence for punctuated equilibrium theory in the allocation of presidential policy attention via these four tools. When presidents do shift their attention to an issue area, they often attack the issue with some coordination of their policy instruments.