I finally got around to reading Ezra Klein’s interesting take on what I consider to be a fascinating subject: the power of presidents to persuade the public. Klein’s piece, in the March 19 New Yorker, takes a dim view of the practical uses of presidential rhetoric, using mostly presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama as case studies. Reagan, Klein notes, was considered to be a great communicator (or, as he is remembered, the Great Communicator), yet his approval ratings were average and many of his primary policy prescriptions never caught on with the public.
Overall, he writes, the same is true of Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Bush was unable to convince the country to accept social security reform, and Obama has been unable to sell additional fiscal stimulus and most notably his health care reform law, which remains broadly unpopular. The overestimation of the power of the bully pulpit, he finds, is more likely to harm a president’s domestic policy agenda than advance it. But I think the key word there is “domestic.” Switch the subject to foreign policy, and the power is somewhat restored.