Technology has put a premium on communication, ushering in the rhetorical presidency. But the focus on presidential talk has also come from a change in how we see the office. As governing has become more like a permanent campaign, we've grown to thinking that an effective president is one who speaks in campaign mode — all the time. And if he could persuade people to join his side as a candidate, why wouldn't he be able to do it as president?
How powerful is the bully pulpit?
As Ezra Klein wrote in The New Yorker, Texas A&M University's George Edwards and a number of other political scientists have systematically dismantled the idea that presidents can cause significant shifts in public opinion. The starkest examples come from the presidents known for being our greatest communicators. In 1937, at the height of his power, Franklin Roosevelt tried to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court to receive more favorable rulings for his New Deal legislation. He went directly to the public, making the Judicial Procedure Reform Bill the subject of one of his famous fireside chats. Most of the other chats had not been used so pointedly — to make a pitch for a specific program — but this was a special issue for FDR. The public didn't bite. They saw it as a power grab and the measure failed. One of our great rhetorical presidents, Roosevelt could not convince the country to join World War II before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
John F. Kennedy's words are repeated as much as any other president, but his eloquence didn't help him in the Oval Office. He was constantly frustrated with his inability to gather support to pass education and health care bills. When he made a televised address in Madison Square Garden for Medicare reform, he tried to rally the country to his cause. "In this free society of ours the consent and support of the citizens of this country is essential if this or any other piece is going to be passed," he said to an estimated television audience of 20 million. The next night a family physician, Edward Annis, gave a televised rebuttal. More than 30 million people tuned in, according to one report, suggesting that Kennedy was perhaps less popular in this fight than the family doctor. The president did not sway his audience and the measure was defeated in Congress.