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“I’m Not the President of Black America”: Rhetorical versus Policy Representation

  • Pavielle E. Haines, Tali Mendelberg and Bennett Butler

Abstract

A key question in the study of minority representation is whether descriptive representatives provide superior substantive representation. Neglected in this literature is the distinction between two forms of substantive representation: rhetoric versus policy. We provide a systematic comparison of presidential minority representation along these two dimensions. Barack Obama was the first African American president, yet his substantive representation of African Americans has not been fully evaluated. Using speech and budget data, we find that relative to comparable presidents, Obama offered weaker rhetorical representation, but stronger policy representation, on race and poverty. While we cannot rule out non-racial explanations, Obama’s policy proposals are consistent with minority representation. His actions also suggest that descriptive representatives may provide relatively better policy representation but worse rhetorical representation, at least when the constituency is a numerical minority. We thus highlight an understudied tension between rhetoric and policy in theories of minority representation.

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Copyright

Footnotes

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The authors gratefully acknowledge Lisa Argyle, Devin Caughey, Brandice Canes-Wrone, Ben Hammond, Martin Gilens, and James Lo for their thoughtful insights and generous feedback. They thank Hannah Schoen and Ashesh Rambachan for their research assistance. They also received valuable suggestions on an earlier draft of this paper from participants at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. This project was generously funded by the Princeton University Committee on Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences and Center for the Study of Democratic Politics.

A list of permanent links to Supplemental Materials provided by the authors precedes the References section.

*

Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/RTJ02G.

Footnotes

References

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