Ezra Klein writes in The New Yorker on the power, or lack thereof, of presidential speechmaking. An excerpt, where he's talking to Professor George Edwards about data-driven analysis of the ramifications of presidential speeches:
“Edwards ended his presentation with a study of his own, on Ronald Reagan, who is generally regarded as one of the Presidency’s great communicators. Edwards wrote, “If we cannot find evidence of the impact of the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, then we have reason to reconsider the broad assumptions regarding the consequences of rhetoric.” As it turns out, there was reason to reconsider. Reagan succeeded in passing major provisions of his agenda, such as the 1981 tax cuts, but, Edwards wrote, “surveys of public opinion have found that support for regulatory programs and spending on health care, welfare, urban problems, education, environmental protection and aid to minorities”—all programs that the President opposed—“increased rather than decreased during Reagan’s tenure.” Meanwhile, “support for increased defense expenditures was decidedly lower at the end of his administration than at the beginning.” In other words, people were less persuaded by Reagan when he left office than they were when he took office. Nor was Reagan’s Presidency distinguished by an unusually strong personal connection with the electorate. A study by the Gallup organization, from 2004, found that, compared with all the Presidential job-approval ratings it had on record, Reagan’s was slightly below average, at fifty-three per cent. It was only after he left office that Americans came to see him as an unusually likable and effective leader.”
Interesting stuff. The general response I have is that presidential speeches are less effective at persuading today for a variety of reasons.
There are the reasons a White House can control, such as too many speeches (Obama), too many speechwriters (Clinton), and poor choices among them (W.)—particularly, hiring people more interested in advancing their own careers than in learning and adapting to the unique style and vocabulary of the president. Authenticity is key, and many speechwriters give in to the temptation to throw in a flourish that sounds beautiful but also off-key. As Henry Kissinger once wrote:
“The choice of speechwriters always determined the tone and not infrequently the substance of a Presidential speech. The common conception is that speechwriters are passive instruments who docilely craft into elegant prose the policy thought of their principals. On the contrary, the vast majority of them are frustrated principals themselves who seek to use their privileged position to put over their own ideas.”
In my brief days in the White House speechwriting office under President George W. Bush, this problem was very much in evidence. I'd argue that some of the moments when these speechwriters served Bush particularly poorly was when they shoehorned lines into speeches that sounded pretty but rang false coming from his mouth. Again: authenticity is key. You have to know the voice of the principal and not your own. This is the difference between being a good writer and being a good speechwriter.
Yet there are larger problems, too—things the White House cannot truly control, such as an increasing lack of common culture, an abundance of alternative sources of information, the growth of niche sources for news. There are any number of factors well outside the control of an administration and they represent a break with the once-dominant voice of a president. The bully pulpit has gone the way of the Toryentalist.
I’d suggest Obama’s failure in this case is more a problem of the former than the latter. He is simply overexposed, speaking too much on too many topics with too many flourishes. The American people have tired of hearing him in the same way they tire of pop hits that soar to the top of the charts but then are replayed a million billion times, until the same people who rushed to buy the song are saying “If I never hear Adele again in my life, that’s okay by me.”
Additionally, the political science part of this analysis seems very limited to me. How would Professor Edwards evaluate speeches, from a data-driven perspective, that have arguably defined and encapsulated political thought in the nation for centuries? How do you measure, in a data driven way, the impact of Lincoln’s second Inaugural or the Gettysburg address? Few speeches had as much impact on the course of a political career as Nixon’s Checkers speech, but I’d be curious how Edwards measures its impact—it may not even merit a look, since it was a speech of a candidate for Vice President, but without it, Nixon never would’ve been president (that story is still fascinating in its turns—I love when Ike breaks the pencil).
Here's where Edwards' model may break down. That single speech did nothing to change domestic policy; but it did everything to change who made domestic policy.
When presidential speeches are successful in the modern era, they tend to be successful in defining the man or the moment, which may or may not have anything to do with domestic policy. Think about Hendrik Hertzberg’s malaise speech for Carter, or Peter Robinson’s “tear down this wall” line for Reagan, as contrasting moments in modern speechmaking. These were not just moments which defined two different attitudes toward the end of the Cold War, but as statements which had two very different effects. One redefined the way people thought about the president who said them, while the other redefined the way people thought about the country and the world. For Carter, a cultural criticism paired with a hectoring demand that people sit up straight and stop their whining shrank him as a man and a figure; for Reagan, a bold embrace of the idea that things are inevitable until they aren’t came to define the foreign policy of his presidency. That wall did not come down because Reagan demanded it. But it came down in part because when he demanded it, people began to believe such a thing was possible.
Presidential speeches still have the power to define and persuade, to tell a story to the American people about what has happened and why, and what they will do about it. It just takes a president who talks less but says more.