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

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

By Pavielle E Haines, University of DenverTali Mendelberg, Princeton University, and Bennett Butler, United States Senate

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.