Obama has come under recent criticism recently for playing “small ball” in terms of policy proposals, particularly in the 2014 State of the Union. On Tuesday, defending new fuel efficiency standards, he reminded audiences in Maryland that he had “said this would be a year of action,” and listed the other action items: a raise in the minimum wage for federal contractors, myRA accounts, job training programs. These speak to important party priorities, but seem to lack a unifying idea. A number of commentators have chalked this up to Obama’s immediate political constraints. But Obama’s approach is actually pretty typical of Democratic presidents, even setting aside factors like divided government and timing.
In some recent research, I look at how often presidents refer to the meaning of the election results. Arguably, the first few months of a presidential term are the most promising times to articulate a broad policy vision. And mandate rhetoric, questionable though it may be, is a logical vehicle for presidents to discuss that vision.
There are two major differences between Democratic and Republican presidents: Republicans tend to claim electoral mandates more often than Democrats – an average of about nine percent of Democratic communications had a mandate reference, compared with more than twelve percent of Republican communications in a comparable window.
Furthermore, in these speeches, Democratic presidents not only tend toward laundry-listing proposals, they also play “small ball,” talking about narrow issues and wonky solutions like zero-base budgeting. Carter and Clinton also cited government reforms, specific budget proposals, and environmental issues. Obama added stem cell research and foreign policy to the list.
Republican rhetoric has been more focused. After the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan emphasized broad ideas like efficiency and improvement with few specifics. Similarly, George W. Bush used mandate rhetoric to argue that the electorate had called for tax cuts and Social Security privatization. Bush also reached into other policy areas in his second term rhetoric, such as defense and education, but tied these into the 2004 Republican platform. George H.W. Bush represents somewhat of an outlier, consistent with his famous lack of “the vision thing.”
Why this disparity? One possible explanation is that Republican ideology has dominated the past thirty-plus years. Carter was the first Democrat to serve in the White House during this decline. Over the next two decades, “liberal” would become a dirty word, leaving Democrats casting about for a governing philosophy. A competing explanation suggests that because Democratic presidents believe in the power of government to solve problems and improve society, they simply have more items on their policy agendas. Republicans, by contrast, have been preoccupied with tax cuts and privatization, and their rhetoric reflects that focus.
These choices have implications for presidents and parties. Having a focused message based on party principles has helped Republicans create an electorally useful party “brand,” which likely enhanced their success in 2004 and 2010. For Democrats, on the other hand, listing multiple policies without connection to a broader governing idea may have the opposite effect. Failure to articulate the party’s core ideas allows their opponents to define the terms of debate. And it decreases these leaders’ chances of having their faces on a Presidents Day ad.