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Lessons of Presidential Persuasion: Be the Commander-In-Chief

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.

Bush may not have been able to sell Social Security reform, but it would be difficult to conjure a more memorable scene from Bush’s eight years in office than his speech atop the fire truck at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It was—and remains—both moving and inspiring to hear the president emerge brilliantly from the shell of his tendency toward the folksy, and sometimes awkward, when ad-libbing, at that scene. It all could have gone very differently, since the bullhorn he was using worked only intermittently, and the crowd began losing patience. Yet, as they shouted that they couldn’t hear him, Bush remained calm, steady, and delivered a fine moment when he responded, “I can hear you. I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

Reagan’s most famous line, obviously, was “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” It is what he is remembered for as well—not just the words, but the sentiment, and the political risk involved. Very few conversations about Reagan center on what he said before or after his first-term tax deal with the Democrats. It’s fitting, because though presidential elections usually turn on the economy, the chief executive has more influence on foreign affairs. This is no different for Obama.

After Obama announced a troop “surge” in Afghanistan in December 2009, polls showed a 9-percent jump in Americans who thought staying in Afghanistan was the right course of action, and a 6-percent drop in those who opposed the war. Americans favored the speech itself by a 23-point margin. And the president saw a 7-point jump in public approval of his handling of the war.

None of this is out of the ordinary. When I interviewed James Robbins about his book on Vietnam, This Time We Win, he argued that polls at the time showed Lyndon Johnson to have more support for the war effort—especially its escalation—than most people think in retrospect.

“According to opinion polls at the time taken directly after Tet and a few weeks after Tet, the American people wanted to escalate the war,” Robbins told me. “They understand that the enemy had suffered a terrible defeat, so there was an opportunity if we had taken concerted action to actually win this thing.” Even on college campuses, he said, more people identified as hawks than doves: “The notion that young people were long-haired dope smoking draft resisters in 1967-68 is not true. The ‘Forrest Gump’ view of history is wrong.”

If you expand the category to national security in general, Clinton gets a boost as well. This one is more difficult to measure than support for a war, but leading up the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton had been marginalized to such a degree by Newt Gingrich’s masterful ability to control the narrative that Clinton offered his much-mocked plea at a briefing: “The president is still relevant here.” The bombing happened the next day, and Clinton’s ability to project empathy and his portrayal of opposition to his presidency as right-wing anti-government excess partly to blame for any dark mood in which someone bombs a federal building completely changed the pace and tone of the coverage of his presidency.

Speeches delivered in the service of selling a tax increase or even solving a debt-ceiling showdown are often treated as the president taking his eye off the ball. The president as commander-in-chief, however, is a role for which voters consistently express their support.

I want to offer Klein one more note of optimism. He writes:

Back-room bargains and quiet negotiations do not, however, present an inspiring vision of the Presidency. And they fail, too. Boehner and Obama spent much of last summer sitting in a room together, but, ultimately, the Speaker didn’t make a private deal with the President for the same reason that Republican legislators don’t swoon over a public speech by him: he is the leader of the Democratic Party, and if he wins they lose. This suggests that, as the two parties become more sharply divided, it may become increasingly difficult for a President to govern—and there’s little that he can do about it.

I disagree. The details of the deal matter, not just the party lines about the dispute. There is no way the backroom negotiations Clinton conducted with Gingrich over social security reform could have been possible if we had prime ministers, instead of presidents. The president possesses political capital Congress doesn’t. History tells us there are effective ways to use that capital. One lesson: quiet action on domestic policy, visible and audible leadership on national security.

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