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Author: Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D.

Setting the agenda.

John Kingdon writes, "the critical thing to understand is not where the seed comes from, but what makes the soil fertile." In this class we will continue our broad discussion of policy formulation and conclude with our first case application - an examination of the 2002 farm bill. The Farm Bill is the major agricultural legislation in the US, which expires every five to ten years. It authorizes programs on commodity payments, trade, conservation, credit, agricultural research, food stamps, marketing and many other programs.

Quote of the Day

Bob Woodward is a Washington Post reporter and author. He and Carl Bernstein are known for their reporting of the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon presidency. The Agenda is a book about Bill Clinton’s first couple of years in office and his attempt to pass an economic reform package. This quote reveals how even the “most powerful man on Earth” has difficulties setting an agenda and carrying it out.

“One night in early 1994 during a discussion in the Oval Office with several aides in attendance, Clinton said that it was the ideas that had driven him. He sat forward. ‘I could never have survived the presidential campaign of ’92—never—if it had just been a personal odyssey.’ Obstacles to governing abounded, he continued. ‘The president does not govern alone.’ The power of perception, he said, permeated the entire political process. ‘It’s how other people perceive you and perceive your policies. And how they react really does matter.’ Clinton was asked what he thought of his role in the economy. Was he the commander in chief of the economy, as the public seemed to think?

Clinton paused some time before answering. ‘More like a captain of a ship,’ he said, grasping for the metaphor of a very old ship with oars. ‘That is, I can steer it, but a storm can still come up and sink it. And the people that are supposed to be rowing can refuse to row.’

Clinton still had not found the theme for his presidency, a concise and compelling way to lay out “The Journey” or “The Story” as Hillary had proposed a year earlier. While drafting his State of the Union address for 1994, Clinton told several of his aides, ‘I have to try to create a framework so people understand what I’m doing.’ They had tried themes of economic security, or community and responsibility, but none had worked. Even after the address the White House had a group searching for a way to encapsulate his economic strategy. There were lots of topics, initiatives, directions, ideas, and words, but the description they were seeking eluded them.”

Bob Woodward, The Agenda. 1995, Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Discussion Questions

President Bush is seeking to change the structure of social security. How is he doing in steering this ship and composing a theme for his journey? What are the various agendas at play in the social security debate?



  • Deborah Stone. Policy Paradox, Part IV. pp. 259-375
  • John Kingdon. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. Ch. 4-8, pp. 71-204