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Does the President Have the Power to Convince Us of Anything?

Not really, no. So why, then, do we bother to listen to his speeches?
President Obama delivering the State of the Union to the United States Congress. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

President Obama delivering the State of the Union to the United States Congress. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

When President Barack Obama went before the American people to discuss the situation in Syria last week it looked like it could be a decisive moment. As the Associated Press put it: “Obama is hitting the airwaves to try to convince war-weary Americans that limited strikes against Syria are needed for the United States' long-term safety.” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said that while he thought strikes were necessary, the president had to do a good job explaining why to the rest of the country. “We urge the president to up his game,” Graham quipped.

Americans see the president’s power to sell Congress and this country's citizens on an idea as one of the more important duties of his office.

In 1961, Richard Neustadt, a professor of government at Columbia University, wrote Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, which argued that the most important power the president has is the “power to persuade.”

Despite what the pundits say about the power of the president’s communication, everyone is pretty limited in his or her ability to change someone's mind.

That power is even arguably enshrined in the Constitution, in the vague Article II: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” In his book, Neustadt argued that it is the limits of the president's power that gives rhetoric such importance. The office is little without our commander in chief’s ability to convince the nation to do things.

This has been a consuming point of discussion when considering past presidents and their effectiveness. President Abraham Lincoln is famous for his eloquence. His second inaugural address—“With  malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”—is generally seen as a crucial moment in the beginning of the reunification of the United States following the Civil War. Historians sometimes point to Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate—“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”—as the death knell of the Soviet empire. Even John Quincy Adams was known as "Old Eloquent" for his communication skills, particularly with regard to his promotion of abolition.

But what if we're focusing on the wrong thing? As John Dickerson put it at Slate a year ago, "the evidence suggests that if people don't agree with a president, his ability to persuade them otherwise is pretty limited." While Jeffrey Tulis argued in The Rhetorical Presidency that Americans expected 20th-century presidents to “defend themselves publicly, to promote policy initiatives nationwide, and to inspirit the population,” actually, according to research by Texas A&M’s George C. Edwards III, they don’t really do much of that at all.

The president has a fairly limited power to persuade Americans. As Edwards argues at Politico:

Bill Clinton, “the great explainer,” could not win public backing for his economic stimulus bill or his cornerstone proposal for reforming the health-care system. Nor did the public (or congressional Republicans) support his 1999 bombing in the Balkans.

World War II posed the greatest crisis of the twentieth century. FDR, the century’s supreme politician, was continually frustrated in his efforts to convince Americans to rearm and aid their allies against Adolf Hitler’s onslaught. It took events in Europe and then Pearl Harbor, not a fireside chat, to change voters’ minds. The president’s plan to “pack” the Supreme Court split the Democratic Party, gave birth to the Conservative Coalition, and effectively ended the New Deal.

Even the so-called great communicators, the presidents with the silver tongues, can’t do much. We remember Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats as persuasive because they sound convincing in retrospect. At the time only people who already liked Roosevelt were much interested in his radio broadcasts. The reality is that the president simply cannot persuade Americans, most of the time, to do something that they don’t already want to do. The president does not have it in his power to make an unpopular idea popular.

Elvin Lim of Oxford has argued that presidential rhetoric changed dramatically over the course of the 20th century, perhaps due to the influence of television, to be “more anti-intellectual, more abstract, more assertive, more democratic, and more conversational,” but there’s a dearth of really compelling evidence that this matters to the subject at hand.

A truly useful study would demonstrate a change (or lack thereof) in public opinion from before one “successful” speech to after, and compare that over time. For a variety of reasons, including lack of comparable public polling data over the course of decades, lack of agreement about whether or not speeches are “good,” or even what good means, such a study would be difficult to perform. But researchers have tried.

As George Washington University political scientist John Sides explained, presidential speeches don’t really move the president’s job approval ratings.

Presidential speeches don’t tend to persuade people on policy....  Take the “Great Communicator,” Ronald Reagan. ... Reagan could not move opinion on signature issues like aid to the contras. And Reagan’s advocacy for increased defense spending was soon followed by a decrease in support for additional defense spending. Public opinion on government spending often moves in the opposite direction as presidential preferences and government policy.

They also don’t seem to move members of Congress, from either party:

Presidents don’t often succeed in persuading reluctant members of Congress to go along with their views. Take Lyndon Johnson, supposedly a master manipulator of Congress. ... Support in Congress for Johnson’s initiatives was not systematically higher than Kennedy’s or Carter’s. For example, on crucial votes in the House, Johnson won the support of 68% of Democrats and 29% of Republicans. Kennedy did better among Democrats (74%) and worse among Republicans (17%). Carter did worse among Democrats (59%) but the same among Republicans (29%).

Reagan admitted this, writing in his 1990 memoirs that, “I would speak on television ... about the problems in Central America, and ... hope ... [for] an outpouring of support from Americans.... But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened.”

Why is this? Despite what the pundits say about the power of the president’s communication, everyone is pretty limited in his or her ability to change someone's mind.

Roosevelt shortly after giving one of his famous fireside chats. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)


There are, of course, good and bad communicators, and good and bad speechwriters, but it’s not even clear that rhetoric itself does much to shift opinions. As Boston College English professor P. Albert Duhamel wrote way back in 1949: "Rhetoric is better thought of as an idea, the concept of effective expression, than as a set or collection of principles with an abiding purpose." Good rhetoric is just about speaking well and presenting your opinions clearly, not necessarily about moving everyone over to your side. People have philosophical beliefs, personal interests, and  causes to which they are committed. Rhetoric, often, isn’t going to alter that.

We can perhaps be persuaded a little, but not much. If someone goes into an appliance store looking to buy a new refrigerator, he might also be convinced to pick up a new trash compactor, but he is, after all, already in an appliance store and prepared to spend a large sum of money on a kitchen upgrade. It’s harder to stop someone as they're coming out of the bank by handing them a flyer for a rave featuring the city’s hottest new DJ and expect them to actually show up. Odds are, they're just not that interested. And there’s not much you can do to change that.

This doesn’t mean that presidential rhetoric is irrelevant, however. As Calvin Trillin wrote back when Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, "It's part of his job to comfort the American people in times of distress or inspire them to sacrifice for the greater good." A large part of the purpose or success of presidential communication may have to do with something more ambiguous and harder to measure. It may be less about changing minds and more about communicating a vision and putting events in perspective.

I’ve personally always thought that Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation speech (written by Ray Price), was one of the most even-handed and beautiful political speeches of modern times (right up there with Edward M. Kennedy’s “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die” speech). It really does explain who he was and what he was trying to do with his time in office. But it doesn’t make the 37th president seem any less guilty.