Debating the President’s Jobs Plan

Among other things, the president’s new jobs plan has renewed interest in the perennial question: under what conditions does the president pass successfully his preferred policies in Congress? National media coverage of the president waving a bill he intends to send to Congress for its approval suggests the president is anticipating conflict and plans to “socialize” that conflict by appealing directly to citizens. That the president is going public, furthermore, suggests that he intends to create: (1) favorable electoral conditions, (2) favorable policy conditions, or (3) both. Regardless of which motive is correct, how does the President create favorable electoral conditions by going public and to what extent do those conditions facilitate presidential success in Congress?
It is almost second nature for political scientists to claim that political elites generate favorable electoral conditions through agenda setting, priming, and framing. We are interested in by whom and under what conditions the policy agenda is set and what effect issue awareness has on political preferences. However, it seems that the policy agenda for the impending presidential campaign is set: the economy seems to be the only issue on the minds of voters and elites. Holding constant the possibility of some exogenous shock, the current political climate suggests the president is likely to be more concerned with how the economy is presented and discussed publicly than establishing a new agenda; that is, the president is likely to be concerned with presenting (or framing) the economy in such a way to generate favorable opinion among the mass public.

Jacoby (2000), in an important and well-known article, showed that the manner in which economic issues are framed affects the distribution of public opinion. When government spending is framed generally, the distribution of public opinion is somewhat symmetric with about as many people approving of the claim that government spending and services should be increased, as there are who disapprove of that claim. When spending is framed specifically, about specific social welfare policies and other substantive policy areas, the distribution is asymmetric with more people supportive of increasing spending relative to decreasing spending. Jacoby’s analysis, in short, suggests that in order for the president to generate favorable opinion on his jobs plan he ought to discuss specific beneficiaries of the plan. The Republicans, to the extent that they want to discourage approval of the plan, ought to frame the plan as, “another proposal aimed at increasing spending.” The dominant frame will not only affect public opinion on the jobs plan, it will also affect public attitudes towards the president, Congress, and the reigning Republican candidates.

This much, that framing affects public opinion, is pretty well known. New research suggests, however, that the president should consider an alternative strategy of “engagement.” Jerit (2008) shows with a time-series analysis that president Clinton was more successful at increasing support for health care reform in 1993-1994 by engaging the Republicans on their preferred frame relative to using a different frame. Public support increased more, that is, when president Clinton challenged Republicans on their own ground rather than “talking past them” with a more favorable frame. Certainly more research needs to be conducted, on more issues with different political elites, to derive reliable conclusions about the effectiveness of engagement.  However, Jerit’s article suggests that the president may be more successful at increasing support for his jobs plan, and other economic recovery items, by engaging Republicans in a debate about the merits of increasing government spending and services to stimulate economic recovery.

Although open to significant debate, it has been shown that presidential approval is only weakly associated with presidential success in Congress (Cohen et al, 2000). However, there is little doubt that public opinion about particular issues, rather than approval of the president’s job performance, affects congressional choices. Congress is much more likely to support policies that have favorable public approval among their constituents and the general mass public than those that do not. To the extent that the president can garner mass support for his jobs plan (through winning the framing contest or engagement on the merits), we are likely to see increasing support for that policy in Congress. Additionally, support for the jobs plan is likely to have the byproduct of creating, at least marginally, favorable electoral conditions for the president.

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