UNT researchers study three modern presidents’ messages on income inequality

Thursday, November 9, 2017 - 15:37
Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, chair of the University of North Texas Department of Political Science.
Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, chair of the University of North Texas Department of Political Science.

DENTON (UNT), Texas - As Congress begins debate on the tax overhaul unveiled by House Republicans, anything that President Donald Trump does to draw attention to income inequality among Americans may influence news coverage of the issue. However, Republican presidents, unlike Democratic presidents, don't tend to make discussion of income inequality a priority, according to a recent study from University of North Texas researchers.

Regardless of the president's political party, the researchers say, federal policy response on income inequality is unlikely if the president and the news media don’t put the same priority on the issue.

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, chair of the UNT Department of Political Science, and doctoral candidate Ronald J. McGauvran examined weekly news coverage of income inequality from 1999 to 2013, and weekly mentions of income inequality from Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama for the same time period, as documented in Public Papers of the Presidents.

The news coverage included content from the New York Times and Washington Post; broadcast and cable television news outlets CBS, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and NBC; and political websites nationalreview.com and slate.com. The study was recently published in Political Research Quarterly.

Eshbaugh-Soha and McGauvran discovered that presidential attention to income inequality, such as Bill Clinton arguing that the late 1990s economic boom should extend to a broader segment of American society, led to an increase of news coverage across all news sources except for broadcast television news. However, if a news outlet ran a story on income inequality at a time when the president's attention was on another issue, the story did not lead to the president paying more attention to the subject, the researchers found.

Democrats Clinton and Obama were more successful in drawing media interest to income inequality than Republican George W. Bush, Eshbaugh-Soha said.

"Democrats prefer to prioritize income inequality and are more likely to use their public rhetoric as a vehicle to focus national attention to it," he said.

McGauvran noted that Bush's tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 were never framed by the president as addressing "income inequality" because "talk of income inequality generally hasn't been used with middle class voters" who were a large part of Bush's supporters. They added the economy wasn't a large priority on the president's agenda after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Eshbaugh-Soha said Bush later had to respond to 2004 presidential election opponent John Kerry, who said that the tax cuts had hurt lower and middle class Americans. The criticism did not result in Bush losing the election, but it "did reinforce the conventional wisdom that income inequality worsens under Republican administrations," he said.

Eshbaugh-Soha said the president paying little attention to stories on income inequality instigated by the news media and not the president's actions may be one reason "why significant policy change on income inequality has been lacking at the federal level."

That doesn't mean, however, that local and state legislators aren't influenced by a president's message, he aid. He noted that after President Obama spoke on income inequality in the 2015 State of the Union address, Seattle officials voted to incrementally boost the city's minimum wage up to $15 an hour.  

"Given our findings, it is likely that significant policy changes on income inequality are likely to come from somewhere other than the White House," he said.


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