Presidents Don't Persuade

There is no “power to persuade” for a US president. That is the conclusion in Ezra Klein’s fascinating recent New Yorker article, drawing heavily upon data-heavy research by George Edwards of Texas A and M University.

It can come as a bit of a shock. You read it in all the textbooks; a key element in the arsenal of an American president is his power to persuade. He has a bully pulpit second to none, can command television audiences most candidates barely dream about and has probably come to the presidency in the first place because of his powers of oratorical persuasiveness. Every successful president from Theodore Roosevelt, through his distant cousin Franklin, via JFK, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, to Barack Obama, have been hailed as great speakers, articulators of their vision and persuaders of the American people.

Well, not quite. Klein describes how George Edwards, no specialist in presidential rhetoric, was nonetheless suspicious at the lack of specific evidence to back up the oft repeated claim that presidents persuade. Asked to organise a symposium on the issue, he undertook some research of his won, focusing on the “Great Communicator” himself, Ronald Reagan. Using the polling data, he discovered that Reagan consistently failed to convince the public of the need for programmes he himself favoured, whilst public support for programmes he opposed in fact increased. Not much persuasion going on there then. Only after he left office did Reagan’s reputation as the great persuader start to take hold, in defiance of the evidence.

Edwards eventually extended his research, which is admirably reviewed by Klein, and saw that Reagan was not alone. Bill Clinton, his modern rival in presidential communications, fared no better in actually persuading the American public, for all his skills as a politician. And the power to persuade doesn’t just fail to produce a resonance from the American public. In Congress, too, a president’s speechifying can harden the attitudes of the opposing party, as presidents come to be seen more and more as simply party leaders who need to be opposed.

Klein takes these arguments and looks at what it means for the presidential system of government, as well as considering what it is that really effects a president’s standing. On the former, the hardening party stances in Congress seem to effectively be ensuring a more parliamentary system, but one which is inhibited from much forward motion by the checks of separately elected power sources. Whether this is a new development is one that he also considers, looking back, for example, to FDR’s difficult mid-terms. On the issue of what effects a president’s standing – well, it may not be quite “the economy, stupid”, but it is certainly the general level of well-being that can sometimes be ersonified in the image of the man governing at the time.

In the end, presidents may not be able to persuade very much, but that is surely not going to precipitate a rush to emulate the famously silent Calvin Coolidge and stop them continuing to exercise their vocal chords on their own behalf for the duration of their presidency. After all, the one thing worse than speaking is not speaking. Even if it isn’t very persuasive.


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