Does Presidential Rhetoric Matter?
Priming and Presidential Approval


  • AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors thank Steve Nicholson for bringing the CBS News/New York Times survey to their attention. They also thank Elizabeth Sharrow for research assistance, and Jeffrey Cohen, Nicole Druckman, George Edwards, Bill Flanigan, Larry Jacobs, Kurt Lang, Colleen Miller, Joanne Miller, and Steve Nicholson for helpful advice.

James N. Druckman is Lippincott Associate Professor of political science and a McKnight Presidential Fellow at the University of Minnesota. He has recently published articles in a number of leading journals and is co-editor of Political Psychology.

Justin W. Holmes is a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Minnesota. He has presented papers at meetings of the International Society for the Study of Political Psychology and the Midwest Political Science Association.


The public's approval of the president plays a critical role in determining the president's power and policy-making success. Scholars and pundits have thus devoted a large amount of attention to explaining the dynamics of presidential approval. Surprisingly, this work has overlooked one of the more important potential forces behind approval—that is, what the president himself says. In this article, we examine the direct impact of presidential rhetoric on approval. We do so by combining a content analysis of the 2002 State of the Union address with both a laboratory experiment and a nationally representative survey. We show that the president can have a substantial effect on his own approval by priming the criteria on which citizens base their approval evaluations. Our results add a new dimension to the study of presidential approval, raise intriguing questions about accountability, and extend work on priming and public opinion by introducing the idea of image priming.