Although scholars have described how legislative efforts to spur bipartisanship fare, we have little knowledge about how president can affect perceptions of bipartisanship with their rhetoric. Using various matched bipartisan and partisan speeches by President Obama and Minority Leader John Boehner, we conduct a large survey experiment to ascertain the president’s ability to affect perceptions of bipartisanship among the public and whether these efforts are undone with progressively more partisan messages from the opposition. The results suggest that if the president’s initial message of bipartisanship is met with bipartisan agreement from the opposition party, approval of the President by all partisan groups increase (Democrats, Republicans and independents). However, if the President’s bipartisan message is met with partisan disagreement from the opposition party, the President’s approval is hurt among both his party and opposition party members, yet the demand for bipartisanship in the legislative process declines and support for a more active legislative presidency increases.
They conducted an experiment in which subjects were randomized into one of four conditions:
- Watched a bipartisan message from Obama (his speech at the 2010 House Issues Conference)
- Watched a bipartisan message from both Obama and Boehner (for the latter, it came from a CNN interview)
- Watched a bipartisan message from Obama and a partisan message from Boehner (a 4-minute speech given as a “Weekly Republican Address”)
- Watched a bipartisan message from Obama and a very partisan message from Boehner (from the House floor in March 2010—the famous ‘hell no’ speech)
So what happened? Subjects who saw only Obama’s message came to see him more positively. The effect was not massive: on a 7-point scale, they moved about a quarter of a point in a favorable direction.
When subjects saw bipartisan messages from both Obama and Boehner, their opinion of Obama became more favorable by about half a point.
When Obama’s bipartisan message was countered by Boehner’s partisan message—especially the “hell no” speech—the changed in approval of Obama were smaller and not significant.
Notably, none of these experimental treatments affected approval of Republicans in Congress or the perception that there would be successful bipartisanship.
What lessons can be learned? Rottinghaus and Tedin:
The implications from our findings suggest that discussion of bipartisanship is not an empty exercise. Presidents can improve their own approval for all respondents when their message is viewed in isolation but the effect is much greater when paired with a bipartisan message from the opposition…Yet, it takes two to be bipartisan. The opposition party can hurt the approval of the sitting president if they reject bipartisan advances with a partisan response.
In other words, there’s little evidence from this study that unilateral bipartisanship would help Obama. Remember that the next time a pundit tells you that Obama will only become popular with Americans when he reclaims the mantle of bipartisanship or reemphasizes his “post-partisan” “brand.” That strategy may not help if Republicans don’t play along.