Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Washington Post Features

October 2, 2012

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

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

How do you know what the public wants?

If the political scientists are right, we should stop hanging on every president's every word. That's good news for Mitt Romney. He is not a memorable orator, but it turns out that he doesn't need to be on many issues. He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The average of polls shows 50 percent of the country wants the law repealed and only 40 percent does not. That's more important than all the wordsmiths in the land.

President Obama's rhetorical skills have already been downgraded in office. You could see it at his convention where he delivered a more earthbound speech. It seems like he knows that people may be a little skeptical this time around. When President Obama inevitably reinvigorates his base with rousing words during the campaign, no one should assume he will be any more effective in a second term as president.

If we want to measure a candidate's potential in office, perhaps the more important thing to measure is their ability to read the public. It's only with an understanding of what the public wants that they can shape public views. Candidates speak as if they can intuit the deepest wishes of the public, but where does this understanding come from? They attend rallies made up only of their supporters and they never admit to reading public-opinion polls. Democrats say they don't watch Fox news and Republicans don't wake up to the New York Times.

If voters aren't with a president on a specific issue, all is not lost. Their general disposition toward their leader — whether they think he has their interests at heart — still offers something. If they do trust that he has their back, people might be more predisposed to hear him when, as president, he tries to argue that he has plans or ideas that may first strike them as unappealing. This is an area where Mitt Romney has lots of work to do. When pollsters ask voters which candidate they think cares more about average people, Obama beats Romney regularly by 20 percentage points or more.

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