Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Washington Post Features

October 2, 2012

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

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

There may also be a political benefit to the endless speeches. Take the current president, who has been criticized for giving too many speeches. Today, the American public thinks the economy is lousy. They don't trust that the country is headed in the right direction. And, generally speaking, they think the president's stewardship of the economy is lackluster at best. So why aren't Obama's approval ratings lower? What keeps him afloat, Democratic strategists wonder? It may be that President Obama's speeches over the years have contributed to the relatively warm feeling people have about him. As even Mitt Romney admits, people like the guy.

Of course, there are speeches that move people, and in so doing accrue important political points for a president and his administration. Oftentimes they come from moments of national tragedy or sadness. Bill Clinton's speech after the Oklahoma City bombing broke what had been a series of bad months for him, aligning him once again with the nation. George W. Bush's words on the rubble pile at Ground Zero rallied the nation to his leadership in a way that his initial response to the attack had not. Obama's well-received speech in response to the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords interrupted what had been a dreary period for his administration after the 2010 losses in the House. It's hard to imagine Mitt Romney, who is a workmanlike speaker, seizing one of these moments for his advantage. But the quality of his oratory probably wouldn't hurt him too much. These are situations where the public is straining to embrace a leader; the president just needs to be there to accept the embrace.

How do you know what the public thinks?

The reason presidents can seize on public moments of tragedy is that presidential communication is most effective when it taps into the public's mood. "When broader forces align — public opinion, the right number of legislators — presidential action is a useful addition of momentum to that change," says Sides, the political scientist. "It's not going to create that change by itself, but it can direct it." In this case, then, the most powerful thing a president does when he communicates is topic selection. The public wants many things. Much of what it wants it shouldn't have. Presidential speechmaking sets the agenda and draws the crowd to a topic, which a savvy president knows they are at least somewhat predisposed to supporting.

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