Most people are inclined to think that United States presidents possess a powerful ability to influence the public. Such conditioning explains why the press, political analysts, and the general public analyses every word of their press conferences, interviews, and speeches. Any sitting president and his staff are of the opinion that speeches can influence public approval. If citizens are mistakenly thinking in a certain way, it is assumed it's because the president has not yet convinced them otherwise. This essay looks at what role a presidential speech has on public approval.
There is little proof that presidential speeches succeed in swaying public opinion or rallying support of the masses against a stubborn Congress. In fact, there is proof that if citizens do not agree with a policy that a president is fronting, his chances of persuading them otherwise are quite limited. The notion that presidents can get their way if they just present the right speech is somehow mistaken. It's one thing for people to enjoy hearing the president say what they want to hear. However, such enthusiasm should not be mistaken for what gets legislations passed. During campaigns, it's easy to draw a straight line between the speeches given by candidates and the presidential results. All a candidate has to do to win an election is to convince voters that he is better than his rival a few days to the polling day. This is not the case in a complicated policy debate. A president has to convince distracted and indecisive American public and sufficient legislators that the situation is dire and a lot is at stake.
Various Presidents in American history have been known to use language as a political tool. A good example is Franklin Roosevelt who served in office during trying times such as the Great Depression and the Second World War. According to Trester (401), he opted for plain direct speech instead of the rhetoric commonly used by those before him. He purposely used simple and calm language to inform the public of the problems facing the nation and how he intended to solve them. Ronald Reagan took the application of the mass media to a whole new level. He used television broadcasts to make the presidency appear more accessible to the people. Bill Clinton has a reputation for being a disarming and relaxed public speaker. He can exhibit a certain personality in one speech and a completely different one in another speech. On the other hand, George W. Bush sounds exactly the same irrespective of the audience he is addressing. He is perceived as one who speaks plainly and does not sound like a pompous individual with a lot of education. Bush is seen as down to earth and how he chooses his language goes a long way in underlining this perception (Trester, 403).
Studies show that whatever language that a president chooses to use, speeches don't seem to have an impact on public opinion or influence Congress into agreeing to his policies. For instance, when Roosevelt was at the peak of his power in 1937, he attempted to increase the number of Supreme Court justices in order to attain favorable rulings for a legislation he had fronted. He sought the direct opinion of the public by discussing the bill in one of his well-known fireside chats. While such chats had never been used in such a direct manner-to seek support for a specific program-this was a special case for Roosevelt. However, the public did not fall for it as they saw the bill as an attempt by the president to gain more powers. Roosevelt, one of the greatest rhetorical presidents, failed to convince the nation to join the Second World War before Pearl Harbor was attacked.
John F. Kennedy's speeches and language may be often quoted. However, his eloquence was not of much help to him during his reign. He was frequently unable to gather sufficient support to pass healthcare and education bills. He once made a televised speech in which he tried to rally the public to his cause of making reforms in Medicare. A family physician called Dr. Edward Annis made a televised refutation the following night. It is reported that more people watched the doctor's speech than the president's, implying that Kennedy was probably less popular in the cause when compared to the physician. Kennedy failed to convince the public and consequently, the bill was defeated on the floor of Congress.
Reagan was unable to convince Americans that the US should offer military aid to Contra rebels who at the time were battling the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. This was despite the fact that he made three speeches from the Oval Office on the matter between 1986 and 1988. In October of 1990, Congress was preparing to vote on the proposed Budget Enforcement Act negotiated by President George Bush and congressional leaders. Bush then made a speech to defend the legislation and campaign for its passage. A poll had been conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post just a few weeks before the speech and it showed that only a third of the respondents supported the proposed deal. After Bush's speech, a survey by Times Mirror found an almost similar percentage of those polled in support of the plan.
In August 1993, President Clinton made a televised address to drum up support for his economic-recovery plan. It turned out that support for the plan was lukewarm both before and after the speech. In 2006, President Bush addressed the nation calling for the passage of a plan that involved increased border enforcement together with a so-called 'path to citizenship' for illegal immigrants. A month later, Pew Research Center carried out a survey that showed 56% of the respondents supported the plan. This was almost the exact percentage of the people who claimed they were for 'a path to citizenship' just a month prior to the speech. It seems that even charismatic presidents such as Roosevelt and Reagan were not much effective when it came to swaying people through rhetoric. In some cases, high-profile speeches can actually obstruct governance by converting a crucial issue into a bigoted test of might. Perhaps the only way of measuring a presidential candidate's potential in power is by determining his or her ability to read the public's mood. It is only by knowing what the people want can a president shape public opinions. Nonetheless, if the public does not agree with the president on a certain issue, all is not lost. People's general temperament towards their leader still counts for something. If citizens trust that the president has their interests at heart, they may be more inclined to hear him if he presents a policy that may not be appealing at first. It is then up to him or her to make the policy to resonate with the public.
Trester, M. "Do you speak presidential." (2005).
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Role of Presidential Speech on Public Approval, Free Essay in Political Science. (2022, Feb 25). Retrieved from https://speedypaper.net/essays/role-of-presidential-speech-on-public-approval
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