Why Presidents Give Speeches Anyway (Part One of Three)

In his March 19 essay in The New Yorker, writer Ezra Klein asks, “Who listens to a president?”

To paraphrase a president, the answer depends on what the meaning of “listen” is.

As his first angry shot at the supposed power of presidential speeches, Klein offers President Obama’s speech to Congress last September, on the American Jobs Act. You remember, Speaker Boehner put the president off for a day and POTUS had to compete with a compelling opening game of the NFL. His ratings were good nevertheless, and the speech was as persuasive as Obama and his speechwriting team could make it.

“But, in the days following the speech, Obama’s approval rating was essentially unchanged,” Klein writes. “The audience, apparently, had not been won over. Neither had Congress: the American Jobs Act was filibustered in the Senate and ignored in the House. … The President’s effort at persuasion failed. The question is, could it have succeeded.”

Klein must hope we imagine a White House Speechwriting Office full of shock, anger and recrimination. If only we would have used my elephant-in-the-living room metaphor! The bill would have passed, and President Obama would have gained three points in the Gallup poll!

The idea is absurd, because no one knows more than the people whose value Klein is questioning, just how limited their own power is. Speechwriters know, because of all the speeches they have written, the direct results they can point to are few and desolate between.

All communicators know the percentages. All writers do. Including Klein.

You don’t think he’s wondering this morning why his well-written, widely read New Yorker piece didn’t precipitate a mass firing of White House speechwriters and a reordering of the president’s calendar to include fewer speeches and more tee times.

No, he knows that his piece, however good, will disappear into a trillion other words on the subject, into a vast cosmic wash that sways Americans in mysterious ways.

“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” said President Lincoln once during yet another throwaway ceremonial address in a field in Gettysburg, Pa. And no one would have been more surprised to see the words of a speech that did nothing for the president’s approval ratings and failed to hasten the end of a bloody war, chiseled into marble in a monument to himself.

He would be surprised, however, to see an American scholar, seven score and nine years later, lauded in a national magazine for his discovery of the limits of the power of a single attempt at communication, presidential or otherwise.

We’ll deal with Perfesser George Edwards tomorrow. —DM

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