In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Presidential Persuasion and Public Opinion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Foundations of Public Leadership
  • Reference Books
  • Presidential Approval Ratings
  • Agenda Setting
  • Framing and Priming
  • Foreign Policy and War
  • Polling in the White House
  • Means of Persuasion
  • The Rhetorical Presidency
  • Role of Media
  • Presidential Responsiveness

Political Science Presidential Persuasion and Public Opinion
Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0129


Presidential persuasion is a central feature of presidential power and leadership. Although originally conceived of as essential for bargaining with and influencing Congress and later the bureaucracy, the rise of television and polling science—along with the constraints imposed by legislative gridlock and divided government—afforded presidents regular opportunities to appeal to the public to achieve their policy goals. Despite some scholarly allegations that presidents should persuade the public, the White House’s own expectations that presidents can do so, and the extent to which the modern White House polls and attempts to influence news coverage and public opinion, the predominant conclusion of the literature is that presidential persuasion is unlikely to change public opinion. Even evidence that supports presidential persuasion may be marginal, mixed, time bound, or vary by domestic and foreign policy. At times, presidents may not be able to lead public opinion because they have responded to it. And even the act of speaking, as expressed by scholars of the rhetorical presidency, may puff up unrealistic expectations for the occupant of the office. Nevertheless, presidents may be able to influence the public’s agenda on issues not previously salient to the American people, prime favorable aspects of their policies through speechmaking, and act strategically to parlay existing public support into legislative victories.

General Overviews

This section summarizes general assessments of public opinion that may not be related directly to presidential persuasion but that establish important concepts, theories, and findings upon which much important research is based. Although many of the works cited in this article also contain helpful literature reviews, Edwards and Howell 2009 is an edited handbook on the American presidency that covers much of the relevant literature on the public presidency in one volume. Page and Shapiro 1992 takes a comprehensive look at public opinion change over time. Geer 1996 examines leadership and followership (or responsiveness) in the context of public opinion polls. Neuman 1986 studies the political sophistication of American citizens, which reveals not unexpected findings but a useful overview of the difficulties of persuading an uninterested public. Zaller 1992 provides a sophisticated theory upon which nearly all subsequent public opinion research is based, including much of that which explores presidential persuasion of the public. Pika, et al. 2018 is one of several useful textbooks on the American presidency, each of which includes an introduction to the presidency and public opinion.

  • Edwards, George C., III, and William G. Howell, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the American Presidency. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199238859.001.0001

    Provides a comprehensive overview of important scholarly topics concerning the American presidency. Part 4 on “The Public Presidency” includes several chapters relevant to presidential persuasion and public opinion, including “Leading the Public” and “The Presidency and the Mass Media.”

  • Geer, John G. From Tea Leaves to Opinion Polls. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

    A significant book that documents the importance of issue salience to the likelihood of leadership or followership concerning public opinion polls. The implication for presidential persuasion is that presidents are most likely to lead on issues that are not relevant to the American people.

  • Neuman, W. Russell. The Paradox of Mass Politics: Knowledge and Opinion in the American Electorate. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

    Essential to appreciating the limits of presidential persuasion of public opinion is a foundational understanding that few among the public pay attention to politics, which this book provides.

  • Page, Benjamin, and Robert Shapiro. The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226644806.001.0001

    Offers a comprehensive look at collective opinion change over time and identifies issues where public opinion has and has not followed the president’s policy agenda.

  • Pika, Joseph A., John Anthony Maltese, and Andrew Rudalevige. The Politics of the Presidency. 9th rev. ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2018.

    A presidency textbook that covers many topics, including a chapter on “Public Politics,” that underscores important features of presidential persuasion and public opinion.

  • Zaller, John. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511818691

    This book’s theoretical contribution is essential to understanding presidential persuasion and public opinion. The public’s predisposition is especially relevant to accepting why the public is so difficult to persuade and why presidential speeches tend to reinforce—not change—existing opinions. The balance of elite discourse drives public opinion.

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