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Kernell: Going public

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Kernell. 1997. Going public: New strategies of presidential leadership.

In Brief

Increasingly, American presidents have come to rely on "going public"--that is, on making direct appeals to voters in order to scare Congress into passing legislation that the president wants. Naturally, this is not the only strategy available to presidents, and choosing "going public" over negotiation certainly has its costs. As such, Kernell's central research question is this: "Why should presidents come to favor a strategy of leadership that appears so incompatible with the principles of pluralist theory?" (11). The answer, according to Kernell, is that divided government makes bargaining a less appealing and successful strategy, forcing presidents into their public appeals.


Kernell disputes pluralist (bargaining) views of the president like Neustadt's (see also Dahl, Truman, and Lindblom). Going public conflicts with bargaining in several ways.

  1. It often includes fluff, not the substantial exchanges necessary for bargaining.
  2. It does not extend benefits for compliance but imposes costs for noncompliance. It is more like a threat than a mutually advantageous bargain.
  3. Because it entails posturing, it hardens positions and makes bargaining more difficult.
  4. It undermines the legitimacy of other politicians, Congress in particular (p 3-4).

Later work has suggested that "going public" might be losing some of its effectiveness--or at least that it is growing more difficult. With the rise of cable television, the public is increasingly difficult to reach, forcing presidents to be more strategic in requesting network coverage. See Baum and Kernell 1999.

Main Argument

Only outsiders can go public

Going public is a strategy for independent politicians with few group or institutional loyalties and who are not so interested in sacrificing short-term gain for the longer-term advantages of bargaining. Since presidents are commonly political outsiders, many feel more at home going public than bargaining.

When going public, a president seeks to mobilize other politicians' supporters on his behalf. Usually, a particular audience or constituency is targeted with a particular message. Organization is crucial to success.

Why Going Public is a New Strategy: Institutionalized vs individualized pluralism

Politics has made the transition from institutionalized pluralism (when Neustadt wrote) to individualized pluralism. Institutionalized pluralism features a small number of fixed groups as actors. The major players include committee chairs, party leaders, interests groups, and other oligarchs. There is continuity among the players, so bargaining can take a long term perspective. Thus, favors today can be exchanged for unspecified future favors.

Individualized pluralism features a plethora of individuals rather than a few leaders. Bargaining in this situation is far more difficult. As such, going public becomes attractive, since it enables a president to rile up public opinion against several individual legislators simultaneously.

Reasons for the change include a decline in party loyalty, an increase in the number of interested parties (interest groups) due to the growth of the welfare state, and the rise of independent political entrepreneurs (esp. in Congress, but also in the presidency as a result of the increasing importance of primaries). Since there are more players, bargaining is harder. Reneging on deals is easier, and the collective action obstacles are greater. Thus, presidents go public, a more heavy-handed tactic, but an effective one.

Other (less important) Reasons that Going Public is a New Strategy

New technologies make going public easy (television especially).

Presidents used to be selected by conventions, and they were always "insiders." Since the 1970s, the parties have shifted much more toward using primaries, which favor outsiders and strong campaigners. As such, modern presidents have less attachment (and familiarity) to old modes of bargaining, and instead continue doing what they know how to do: campaigning directly to the people.

Divided government has become increasingly common (see table on p 47). In unified government, presidents don't want to embarrass their co-partisans, since they don't want to yield seats to the opposition. But under divided government, going public is useful both because it can hurt the other party at election time and because it might be more effective than bargaining with a Congress that sharply disagrees with you.

Constraints on going public

There are several constraints on going public. The president can be hurt (politically embarrased) if going public fails. Thus, the threat of going public is employed more often than the act. The message must be latently popular (see Canes-Wrone 2001). Also, Presidents can't go public too often, or the public will become fatigued. Going public generates resentment in Congress (since it is, at root, a threat and a shot at their electoral base). There is some loss of flexibility involved. (However, Reagan often staked out a strong position and then caved in.) Finally, going public is a strategy of weakness; When you can't win by other means, going public is the last resort.

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Kernell, Samuel (author)American PoliticsPresidency (US)

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