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March 20, 2012


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Point: Murray. I also struggle a bit with the idea that because a president's approval rating didn't improve after a speech that means it didn't make a different. That's a bit of a mug's game. For all we know, without the speech his approval would have dropped. Sometimes success may be not gaining ground but simply not losing anymore.

True, Rueben. Klein's argument is something close to, if you change your oil on schedule and the car still breaks down, you shouldn't have bothered changing your oil.

Presidents speak. And if a president decided NOT to speak, or to speak only four times a year, it would be incumbent upon him to demonstrate to the American public what else he was up to the rest of the time.

In a speech, presumably.

True, David. In fact, there definitely seems to be an expectation (for better and for worse) that a president will speak at important times and on important issues, regardless of whether or not he is persuasive. When something big happens, if there isn't a rapid response from the White House often the media shifts into "where is the president?" mode and not speaking becomes a liability.

For that reason, I'm not sure that persuasion should be considered the point or the measure of every presidential speech. It may be true that "the power of the president is the power to persuade." But the role of the president is to lead. Sometimes he (or hopefully one day she) needs to lead through the exercise of power, and that power may depend on persuasion. But other times, as all good leaders understand, leadership may mean informing or explaining or inspiring or motivating or reassuring or consoling or any of a myriad other things.

When Reagan spoke to the nation after the Challenger explosion, for example, I'd like to think he wasn't worried about trying to persuade anyone of anything or even caring much about his approval rating (although someone somewhere in the White House probably was). He was being the national comforter-in-chief. Perhaps ironically, it's probably often these speeches that have the greatest impact on approval ratings.

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