With the unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a new political battle looms for President Obama and the GOP-controlled Senate, which convened for the first time since Scalia’s death this week. Both sides have already exchanged barbs about the possibility of appointing a replacement in an election year. With Republican senators pledging publicly to block Obama’s appointment, the president is likely to wage a battle for public opinion, hoping to rile the public up enough to pressure Republicans to vote on a nominee.
So what power does a president have to shape public opinion? Not a lot.
Samuel Kernell, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, coined the phrase “going public” in the 1980s to describe the process by which presidents take the legislative bargaining process outside of Washington and attempt to curry public opinion in an effort to pressure Congressional representatives to do the president’s bidding. Kernell viewed this as a negative development that precluded democratic deliberation and was the result of technological change and a weakening of the party system.
Though going public seemed to be an effective strategy, its efficacy wasn’t explicitly tested until 2003, when Texas A&M political scientist George Edwards III found presidents have little ability to meaningfully change public opinion through outward appeals. Edwards pointed specifically to Ronald Reagan’s efforts on Nicaragua, Bill Clinton’s push on health care and George W. Bush’s efforts on tax cuts, education and the Iraq War.
|PRESIDENT||ISSUE||DATES||NO. OF REMARKS||STARTING||ENDING|
|Clinton||Health care||March ’93 – June ’94||445||71%||43%|
|G. W. Bush||Tax cuts||Feb. ’01 – May ’01||27||56||56|
|G. W. Bush||War in Iraq||Sept. ’02 – March ’03*||140||58||59|
|Obama||Health care||Feb. ’09 – Feb. ’10||332||46||49|
In addition to the examples Edwards provided, more recent scholarship — on Obama’s health care push and Bush’s attempt to reform Social Security — confirms it is difficult for presidents to effectively change people’s minds.
Even though scholars generally agree the president can’t directly do much to move public opinion, it’s possible to increase media coverage and the perceived importance of an issue. Two political scientists, North Texas’s Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha and Clemson’s Jeffrey S. Peake, argue that in going public a president is really looking to raise the profile of an issue rather than necessarily change public opinion.
Would raising awareness help Obama get a Supreme Court nominee through the Senate? It’s hard to say, but it would be more likely to work if the public already favored Obama’s position, and that’s not clear. As The Washington Post reports, at least four national polls have been conducted on whether Obama should appoint Scalia’s successor. Two polls found the public evenly split, 47-46 and 43-42, in Obama’s favor. The other two polls found even larger shares supporting a 2016 appointment (54 percent and 62 percent), but, as The Post notes, those polls included wording that specifically laid out the underlying logic of both sides of the argument.
Perhaps those two more decisive polls are a truer reflection of where the public will stand in a few months, once both sides have been arguing their case awhile. In that scenario, raising awareness of the standoff might help Obama put pressure on the Senate (it’s another question entirely whether the Senate responds to that pressure). If the public remains evenly divided, however, the White House is more unlikely to benefit from highlighting the issue.
So why can’t the president influence public opinion more? For one, he’s not the only person or group making an appeal. Research specifically on the mechanics of going public about Supreme Court nominees finds that the president operates in an inherently competitive environment and that this competition structures the president’s approach. Charles Cameron and Jee-Kwang Park found that before 1965, “presidents virtually never went public over Supreme Court nominees even when their nominees ran into trouble.” Nomination hearings weren’t the norm until 1955, and Richard Nixon only went public once his nominees got in trouble. However, efforts became significantly more intense with Reagan. There are a few possible explanations for this change: Beginning with Sandra Day O’Connor, Reagan’s first appointment in 1981, hearings were televised and the public was polled about the nominee. In addition, controversial decisions in the 1960s and 1970s — like those involving civil rights and abortion — may have made the Supreme Court a more important issue for the American public. Cameron and Park found presidents began to go public “when and almost only when groups mobilized against the nominee.” In our present-day scenario, interest groups are very likely to work against Obama’s eventual nominee even if he nominates a moderate.
We’re likely to end up with a battle along normal partisan lines, and most research suggests that if the fate of the nominee rests on Obama’s bully pulpit, the chances of confirmation are low.
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