Presidents’ abilities to connect with the public are of utmost political importance. As the focal leader of the nation, presidents can leverage their unique connection to this nation-wide constituency to influence their negotiations with the legislative branch. In pure presidential systems, the constitutional separation of origin and survival of the political executive demands constant negotiation and compromise across independent branches of government, incentivizing the president to rely on this unique connection with the public.
While historically, U.S. presidents may have relied on inter-branch negotiations and backroom deals, modern American presidents live and die by their connection to the public: their electoral campaigns take root years in advance, and many attempt to maintain said political momentum with ongoing direct public appeals throughout their administration. Whether it’s FDR’s radio broadcast Fireside Chats to Donald Trump’s ubiquitous use of social media, leveraging public support has become a tool in the president’s arsenal to strategically wield when deemed necessary. Indeed, many scholars and political spectators attribute President Obama’s campaign success to his effective use of social media and then note the continuance of this strategy of direct public appeals throughout his presidency, taking the form of speeches and weekly YouTube addresses throughout his administration. Direct public appeals, so the story goes, enable U.S. presidents to apply indirect pressure on members of Congress, thereby improving the chances that the presidents’ preferred policy would be adopted into law.
The public presidency is not uniquely American. Work on populism throughout the developing world identifies the rise of anti-establishment rhetoric and the lack of an institutionalized parties as two key facilitating conditions for the emergence of populist leaders. In all pure presidential systems, presidents may leverage their electoral connection with the nationwide constituency in order to sidestep the negotiations that the institutional separation of powers imposes, applying indirect pressure to legislative coalitions.
Although the notion of ‘going public’ has its origins in U.S. presidency, we have little sense of how direct appeals to the public fit into the broader portfolio of presidential powers. Our research situates presidents’ direct public appeals in the broader portfolio of comparative presidential powers. Rather than construe populism and presidents’ plebiscitarian orientation as a personality trait or leadership style, we consider how a president’s propensity to appeal to the public may vary in response to changes in the bargaining environment, which may vary both across countries and over time as a function of institutional, personal and political factors. In our forthcoming article in Presidential Studies Quarterly, we show show that the frequency of presidents’ public appeals varies with both their partisan support in the legislature, their status as a newcomer to the political system, and electoral and legislative institutions. Further, we make available our original data such that we might not be the last to investigate this sort of question.
We debut the Presidential Speeches of the Americas (PSA) dataset, which is a dataset and archive of appearances and speeches made by 24 presidents across 18 pure presidential systems of the western hemisphere. These data contain the records of presidents’ speeches and public appearances as advertised on the official websites of the presidency, most of which contain the transcript of the presidential address. Our aim was to collect as much information as possible, harvesting presidential speech archives for as long as they were made available online. Most sitting presidents maintain an online archive of presidential activities and speeches, and in several countries online archives were also available for previous presidential administrations through the WayBack Internet Archive. An overview of the data contained in the PSA dataset is shown in Table 1. This dataset and archive include records of (and in most cases transcripts of) more than 12,500 presidential speeches, made by 24 presidents in 18 pure presidential systems throughout the western hemisphere. It is available to the public, may be found on the website https://www.psa-dataset-archive.com
In our forthcoming paper, we collapsed all observations in the PSA dataset into a monthly count of presidential speeches, such that we could track the covariance of presidential speechmaking with our explanatory variables. The heatmap shows the cross-sectional distribution of the monthly average number of presidential appearances as reported on the online press archives of the office of the presidency. Though not shown here in the interest of space, President Obama averaged 36 public speeches and appearances per month over the course of his two terms in office. The hemispheric median number of speeches per month is 7, though the data skews positive, with a mean of nearly 12. President Obama shares the distinction of having the highest number of presidential appearances with President Santos of Colombia, with 56 public appearances in a single calendar month.
Shifting our focus across countries and overtime, we see that beyond individual personality traits, institutional and political contexts offer substantial explanatory power as well. When presidents have less partisan support in the legislature, are in open list electoral systems, have bicameral legislatures, or are political outsiders, they are more likely to appeal to the public.
We set out to fill an important lacunae in the research on comparative presidentialism, to sys- systematically consider how presidents’ direct public appeals serve as one resource among many that presidents may use to advance their policy agendas. To that end, we introduce and publicize a new dataset and archive of presidential speeches, the Presidential Speeches of the Americas dataset and archive. Our statistical analysis of a subset of the PSA data suggests that presidents’ direct appeals to the public might serve as a substitute for other sorts of presidential powers, either those derived from their support in the legislature, or those granted to the executive in constitutional texts. These results underscore the advantage of considering ‘going public’ in a comparative perspective, wherein variance in institutional and partisan support can be empirically considered.
For additional information, or to find our forthcoming research at Presidential Studies Quarterly, please visit our website at https://www.psa-dataset-archive.com.
Authors: Alexandra Cockerham, Florida State University; Amanda Driscoll, Florida State University; Joan Joseph, MIT
Posted by Fiona Yap on behalf of authors