USC Price School of Public Policy

Bully Pulpit Linked to War on Drugs

Knowledge in Action:

Bully Pulpit Linked to War on Drugs

By Cristy Lytal

Andrew Whitford Author Andrew Whitford gives a presentation at Lewis Hall.
Photo by John Roberson

The more the president talks about saying no to drugs, the more the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. attorneys, and state and local agencies say yes to arrests and convictions.

Professor Andrew Whitford of the University of Georgia shared these and other findings at the Governance Salon Series sponsored by the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and the Judith and John Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise. The presentation focused on Presidential Rhetoric and the Public Agenda: Constructing the War on Drugs, a book Whitford co-wrote with professor Jeffrey Yates of Binghamton University.

“The book is really about two things,” Whitford told a group of students, faculty and staff assembled in Lewis Hall. “The book is both about presidential rhetoric and agenda setting, and it’s about the War on Drugs.”

In addition to their formal powers, presidents wield informal influence when they speak from the so-called bully pulpit. And when the commander-in-chief speaks, agents and bureaucrats across the nation not only listen but also change the way they implement policy. Whitford uses the War on Drugs as a case study to explore this phenomenon.

In the book, Whitford and Yates give an 80-year history of the presidential management of the battle.

“It turns out treatment is almost never discussed since Nixon,” Whitford said. “And since that time, we’ve never really gone back to a treatment strategy.”

In more recent times, presidents have tended to deliver speeches about narcotics enforcement, and the amount of attention given to the subject has ebbed and flowed.

The book also gives examples of specific presidential speeches, such as Ronald Reagan’s 1988 remarks delivered at a ceremony in honor of law enforcement officers slain in the War on Drugs.

Reagan called the leaders of the “destructive generation” of the 1960s and 1970s “the forgotten accomplices in the epidemic of illegal drug use.” He added, “They cannot escape blame when a law enforcement officer dies in the battle.”

This charged presidential rhetoric both reflects and shapes social constructions of the “dangerous other” — a character that can be imagined as a user, dealer or strung-out criminal. In the public perception, those involved with illegal drugs threaten traditional American values such as hard work, self-control and stability.

According to the book, presidential rhetoric can create a sense of mission that helps bureaucrats and agents make sense of complicated and sometimes incoherent task environments. So even though they don’t directly report to the man in the White House, they tend to follow his agenda.

Whitford presented statistics that demonstrated the correlation between presidential rhetoric and the behavior of the DEA, U.S. attorneys, and state and local agencies. When presidents maximize their rhetoric about the battle, the number of drug-related arrests and cases handled doubles.

However, these effects do not apply to all citizens equally. As presidential rhetoric goes from moderate to maximum, the disparity in arrest rates of blacks and whites increases by 25 percent.

“That’s the racial disparity layer,” Whitford said. “It’s the one where the oomph comes.”