The Norman Transcript

Government

October 2, 2012

Slate: Why presidents don't need to be great public speakers

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

Presidents are not supposed to be motivated by polls. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie argued this point at the Republican National Convention: "You see, Mr. President — real leaders don't follow polls. Real leaders change polls." That's not exactly true. Successful presidents all credit their ability to figure out where the country was headed and then rush to the front to organize the parade. Lincoln not only managed by wandering around, he used to take what he called "public opinion baths," gauging the public's attitude about a particular issue before he made a decision. FDR famously said "I cannot go any faster than the people will let me."

Reagan was a masterful communicator, in part because he didn't try to force the country to go in a direction it didn't want to go. He managed tax cuts and reductions in government spending that met the desires of a conservative wave in the country. Reagan's talent was to give voice (and easily repeatable aphorisms) to the country's mood. (They are still being repeated at GOP rallies today, where I'm with the government and I'm here to help you is a ready laugh line.) The economic success of Reagan's term ratified the ideas behind it — smaller government and the belief that tax cuts lead to economic growth — but his ability to communicate branded those ideas to the times more than simple prosperity could.

Bill Clinton, whose skills connecting with the American people are legendary, nevertheless faced a series of stinging defeats early on. But he learned his lesson after the Republicans took over Congress in 1994. He immediately started supporting a number of small provisions — from encouraging school uniforms to V-chips that would block offensive programming on television — that had wide popular appeal. The triangulation he practiced in which he supported positions in the middle against the extremes of both parties gave him a series of victories that matched the public mood. By offering the public what they wanted, Clinton realigned his presidency with the majority. It wasn't Clinton's words that won people over. It was the policies, stupid.

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