The Value of Speeches
Really, Who Cares What the President Says?
Ezra Klein has an interesting and important article in the New Yorker about the ineffectuality of presidential communication. Klein presents substantial data to support his proposition and concludes:
Presidents have plenty of pollsters on staff, and they give many speeches in the course of a year. So how do they so systematically overestimate the importance of those speeches? Edwards believes that by the time Presidents reach the White House their careers have taught them that they can persuade anyone of anything. “Think about how these guys become President,” he says. “The normal way is talking for two years. That’s all you do, and somehow you win. You must be a really persuasive fellow.”
But being President isn’t the same as running for President. When you’re running for President, giving a good speech helps you achieve your goals. When you are President, giving a good speech can prevent you from achieving them.
As somebody formerly involved in presidential communication, I strongly concur with this view.
You know who was a really lousy presidential communicator? Dwight Eisenhower. You know who else? Calvin Coolidge. Both were overwhelmingly re-elected. Benjamin Disraeli said that a parliamentary majority was better than the best repartee. And likewise, peace and prosperity are better than any speech.
Yet despite both the political science evidence—and the practical experience of politicians from Coolidge onward—political commentary assigns huge excess weight to presidential communication.
Other than to provide target practice for debunkers like Ezra Klein ... why?
I think there are two main reasons, and I'll post each shortly.