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The Public Presidency and Disciplinary Presumptions


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: I am grateful to Shannon Thompson for her superb research assistance as well as Kate Peterson.


The tendency of well-developed research fields to overtill is well known; a corresponding challenge is the tendency to misunderstand or misapply that research by scholars plowing different plots. The mistaken or incomplete interpretation of research on the public presidency presents a particularly egregious case of poor harvesting. Although political observers and scholars outside the public presidency field project “going public” as a highly influential weapon, scholars in the field converge on modest expectations in which presidential promotions have limited, selective, and conditional effects. This pattern is illustrated through content analyses of Barack Obama's speeches and the media's coverage of them. The findings correspond with the expectations of the public presidency field: Obama conducted extensive public promotions of his signature legislative accomplishment—health reform—and his efforts failed to move media coverage, public opinion, or the legislative process. As research on the public presidency expands its scope and reach, there is a growing opportunity to correct its misapplications and, more positively, to build an unusually diverse research community that spans political theory and the social sciences.

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