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Washington Post Features

October 2, 2012

Slate: Why presidents don't need to be great public speakers

WASHINGTON — On Election Night, after a winning presidential candidate enjoys his victory party, he should be given a bathrobe, slippers, and taken to a decompression chamber. Victory can give a president-elect a case of the bends. He is likely to think that since he has convinced the public to elect him, he will have power as president to convince the public to follow him. "It's a malady and it's a dangerous one," says presidential historian George Edwards III. "They have been talking for two years and that's all they've been doing and then they win and they say I can convince people of anything. The feedback is pretty strong."

We're all conditioned to think presidents have a powerful ability to persuade the country. That's why the press and public pour over every word of their speeches, press conferences, and Oval Office interviews. The president and his staff think speeches can change minds, too. If people are mistakenly thinking X, it's just because the president hasn't had a chance to explain Y. Once he does, polls are taken. If the people still don't agree with the president, we see it as a sign that he is somehow flawed.

But we are giving the occupant of the White House too much credit. The evidence suggests that if people don't agree with a president, his ability to persuade them otherwise is pretty limited. "The idea that presidents accomplish more if they give the right speech is magical thinking," says political scientist John Sides. "It feels good for people to hear the president say things they want him to say, but they can't mistake that warm feeling for what gets legislation on the president's desk."

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