Using White House as a prop doesn't fly with voters

January 14, 2021
Looking presidential may not help a president get re-elected.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Looking presidential may not help a president get re-elected. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

U.S. presidents who use “presidential imagery” to appeal directly to voters appear to have little success actually marshaling public opinion in their favor, a recent case study found, even when such a strategy is used on state visits abroad that often draw wider press coverage than domestic events.

Increasingly, this tactic, broadly known within political science as “going public,” takes shape in the form of a “Rose Garden strategy” in which presidents make speeches and appearances against the backdrop of iconic White House landmarks, according to the study, which was first published online in Presidential Studies Quarterly in late October.

Outgoing President Donald Trump’s use of the Rose Garden for official events more than doubled in the first five months of 2019 versus 2017, and his predecessors similarly made frequent use of the venue, said Sarah Thomson, the author of the paper and a doctoral candidate in U.S. history at the University of Edinburgh.

Such maneuvers have the benefit of making a candidate appear more “presidential” than their challengers without engaging in overt campaign events, and helps draw more press coverage to their accomplishments. But there is no evidence that these perks can help improve public approval of an incumbent or their agenda, said Thomson.

Her case study, which examines the effectiveness of these strategies, especially the Rose Garden strategy, in the context of President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 state visit to Europe, found that the impact on approval ratings was “limited.”

“There’s a heightened risk if the strategy backfires, as gaffes or mishaps will also receive wider news coverage,” Thomson told The Academic Times. “It can be a risky strategy, but in Reagan’s case it paid off” in terms of elevating his overall stature as a statesman.

In the past, scholars have generally defined the Rose Garden strategy as “the reelection strategy of incumbent presidents who focus on events in the White House, taking advantage of the grandeur and aura of their office to look presidential,” Thomson wrote. 

But she argues that by broadening the definition of the Rose Garden strategy to include presidential events abroad, scholars find a “more nuanced understanding” of these strategies and how they relate to the electorate and the press.

“When people think of the U.S. president, the White House is one of the first symbols that comes to mind,” Thomson told The Academic Times. “However, there are other things that have come to symbolize the president, too, such as Air Force One, using the presidential seal and U.S. flag and saluting troops,” which underscore the president’s role as commander in chief.

“Overseas travel allows the president to tap into some of these symbols, and these trips often gain more publicity than domestic travel,” she added. “As a result, they offer an excellent opportunity for the incumbent to try and improve their image by demonstrating their capabilities as leader, while also deploying some of these symbols that people have come to associate with the role of POTUS.”

As part of her analysis, Thomson looked at coverage of Reagan’s trip between June 1 to 10, 1984, by three major U.S. newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

During that time, Reagan visited his ancestral home in Ballyporeen, Ireland, the Normandy region of France for the 40th commemoration of D-Day and the G-7 Economic Summit in London. 

At each of these stops, Thomson found that Reagan eschewed political themes such as foreign policy or the economy in speeches that were central to his campaign, outlined his policy objectives and accomplishments of his first term, and sought to reassure U.S. allies.

“These speeches gave Reagan a chance to test the water with some of the issues that later became prominent in the campaign, but crucially, he wasn’t discussing these issues in his capacity as a presidential candidate, but as the sitting president,” Thomson said. “The Rose Garden strategy allows presidents to use the office to improve their odds of reelection without officially campaigning, or financing these trips themselves.”

Reagan’s performance, she found, garnered overwhelmingly positive press coverage, appearing in over 100 articles in all three publications and 33 front-page stories during the 10 days of the tour.

The trip also appeared on the cover of all three publications during seven out of the 10 days, only two of which were negative coverage related to a protest against his visit and Irish disapproval of Reagan’s policies in Central America. 

Yet this barrage of positive news, which even coincided with a contentious contest for the Democratic nomination for president, failed to materialize any meaningful change in overall approval of Reagan’s administration, Thomson found.

Between May 18 and July 9, 1984, Reagan’s approval ratings remained consistent between 54 and 55%, which Thomson argues affirms earlier scholarly debates that the benefits of “going public” are limited.

When questioned about specific policy stances of Reagan, voters indicated in Gallup polls that support for the president’s economic policies did not change, while opinions of Reagan’s handling of relations with the Soviet Union decreased.

Conversely, support for Reagan’s overall foreign policy agenda grew to 48% after the trip from just 37% of voters who said they strongly or moderately supported his policies beforehand, which Thomson said shows that the trip had the impact of making Reagan appear more “statesmanlike.”

Through presidential archival research, Thomson found that Reagan’s staff “consciously” fine-tuned the 1984 trip as a “golden opportunity for Reagan to appear statesmanlike or presidential on the world stage,” she wrote.

Notably, the trip coincided with the final stages of a contentious contest for the Democratic nomination for president, which only served to bolster Reagan’s own image as a steady hand at the helm. 

The planning, Thomson said, demonstrates that the trip exhibited elements and symbols that characterize a typical Rose Garden strategy that takes place outside Washington, D.C., a phenomenon that was largely left unexplored in prior research.

Thomson also noted that the nature of the Rose Garden strategy as well as the act of “going public” are constantly evolving from administration to administration and require further analysis, especially given the prominence of social media and 24-hour news cycles in contemporary elections.

“I’d be really interested to know more about the role that television played in influencing public perceptions of presidential candidates,” she said of potential areas for future research. “Newspapers are a much more readily available source than old TV broadcasts, but by the 1980s, televisions played a really important role in how people engaged with the news.”

“If I had the time and resources, I’d love to do a larger study of how different presidents have used the Rose Garden strategy and how it’s changed as the media landscape has evolved,” she added. 

The paper, “ Presidential Travel and the Rose Garden Strategy: A Case Study of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Tour of Europe, was published on Oct. 20, 2020 in Presidential Studies Quarterly. It was authored by Sarah Margaret Grace Thomson, a doctoral candidate in U.S. history at the University of Edinburgh and IPS Fellow at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. An earlier version of the article was discussed at the 2019 Roosevelt Institute for American Studies’ International PhD Seminar. Thomson’s research was funded by the Janet S. Christie Bequest and Gordon Studentship in American Studies.

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