Ezra Klein has a neat article in the New Yorker that gets to grips with the issue of Presidential rhetoric. His article looks into the effectiveness of Presidential public speaking, speeches and state of the union addresses. Effectively, we want to know, “do presidents persuade with their public speaking?”
Much of the analysis is provided by George Edwards. When George was the director of the Center for Presidential Studies, at Texas A & M University in 1993 he ran a program on Presidential rhetoric. That program spawned a conference. And the conference spawned a whole series of analytical debate on effective public speaking. So the matter of whether presidents persuade really got bigger and bigger.
It seems that Presidents don’t manage to persuade many of their constituents with their speeches. In contrast, when campaigning for the Presidency their speeches do manage to persuade. Candidate Presidents persuade. It’s that simple. Of course, their two year campaign for the nomination and then the job itself is all about persuasion. The presidential power to persuade!
But in government it’s different…and it’s evident in the President’s approval numbers and the audience figures for the speeches themselves. We saw this very clearly with the President’s Libya speech where audience numbers were very low. So, speeches have very limited impact upon an incumbent President. In fact the New Yorker article shows how some speeches actively work against a President achieving his objectives. No persuasion needed here, then.
But if speeches don’t achieve much, you might ask the question, “why do Presidents bother with speeches?”
The answer is complex. But simply put, we want them to give speeches. Congress expects speeches and the State of the Union Address. Although in 2019 that invitation was most contentious. And, clearly, everyone feels better when Presidents give speeches. But, we know that actually Presidents don’t persuade with their speeches. It’s that simple.
Apparently a President who doesn’t give speeches is a President who’s disengaged from the people. Now that’s something that no politician can survive. However, the speechless dictator, Kim Jong-Il got away without a speech for 18 years. But that’s quite different. And no-one was ever going to persuade him to give a speech.
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