Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Washington Post Features

October 2, 2012

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

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

In an interview with Charlie Rose two years later, the president said the same thing. Asked to name a mistake he'd made, Obama said it was not telling good enough stories to the American people.

But good yarns are not enough. In the more than two years since the president started saying he needed to tell better stories, he's been trying, but on issues from health care to the economy, people aren't any more persuaded. The more likely reason for the president's low approval ratings is not that his words weren't conjured properly or arranged in the right order, but that unemployment was high and the country's economic plight wasn't getting better fast enough. If the mechanic hasn't fixed your car, you may understand the story he tells you and you may even be sympathetic to it, but you still want your car fixed.

Even when a president can take advantage of existing sentiment to move legislation, the economy can limit the power of his words. The country overwhelmingly supports the ending of the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy. You might think this would give President Obama the upper hand when Republicans took the position that they would support an extension of all tax cuts or none at all. But the president and his advisers calculated that if no deal was reached and taxes went up that would create greater economic pain that would — ultimately — be blamed on the White House. He couldn't talk his way out of that with a good story.

Presidents can't fight against an underlying feeling about the economy. But that doesn't mean they can't try. They have to appear to be doing something about the No. 1 issue of the day. Giving a speech is the most effective way to look like you're taking charge when your other options are limited. Plus, while political scientists make a good case that presidential speechifying might not always swing voters in a positive direction, it's still possible that speeches keep public opinion from falling into the well.

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