Richard Neustadt, who died in 2003, was the most influential scholar of the American Presidency. He was a founder of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an adviser to Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton, and, in his book “Presidential Power” (1960), he wrote the most frequently quoted line in Presidential studies: “The power of the presidency is the power to persuade.” On August 31st of last year, President Barack Obama prepared to exercise that power. Frustrated with the slow recovery of the economy, he wanted to throw the weight of his office behind a major new stimulus package, the American Jobs Act. To this end, the White House announced that the President would deliver a televised speech to a joint session of Congress, and, as is customary, the President sent a letter to the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, asking him to schedule the address for September 7th. Boehner, the man Obama needed to persuade above all others, said no.
In a written reply to the President, the Speaker said that the House had votes scheduled for six-thirty that evening. He added, “It is my recommendation that your address be held on the following evening, when we can ensure there will be no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks.” Few believed that this was all there was to it. Boehner’s real objection, most thought, was that the Republican Presidential candidates were scheduled to hold a televised debate at the Reagan Library on the seventh, and Obama’s speech would upstage it. The White House, meanwhile, had its own concerns: Boehner’s suggested date would pit the President against the opening game of the N.F.L. season.
No Speaker of the House had ever refused a President’s request to address a joint session of Congress, but the House Republicans refused to budge, and the back-and-forth, which was dominating and delighting the political news media, threatened to overwhelm the President’s message on jobs. In the end, Obama agreed to speak on the eighth.
He was in a combative mood, and, after a summer in which the Republicans had driven the economic debate, with their brinkmanship over the debt ceiling, the Democrats were thrilled to see him take back the legislative initiative. When the TV ratings came in, the White House was relieved: with thirty-one million viewers, the President had beaten the N.F.L. But, in the days following the speech, Obama’s approval rating was essentially unchanged—according to a Gallup poll, it actually dropped a percentage point. 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 White House attempted to break the act into component parts, but none of the major provisions—expanded payroll-tax cuts, infrastructure investment, and a tax credit for businesses that hired unemployed workers—have passed. The President’s effort at persuasion failed. The question is, could it have succeeded?
In 1993, George Edwards, the director of the Center for Presidential Studies, at Texas A. & M. University, sponsored a program in Presidential rhetoric. The program led to a conference, and the organizers asked their patron to present a paper. Edwards didn’t know anything about Presidential rhetoric himself, however, so he asked the organizers for a list of the best works in the field to help him prepare.
Like many political scientists, Edwards is an empiricist. He deals in numbers and tables and charts, and even curates something called the Presidential Data Archive. The studies he read did not impress him. One, for example, concluded that “public speech no longer attends the processes of governance—it is governance,” but offered no rigorous evidence. Instead, the author justified his findings with vague statements like “One anecdote should suffice to make this latter point.”
Nearly twenty years later, Edwards still sounds offended. “They were talking about Presidential speeches as if they were doing literary criticism,” he says. “I just started underlining the claims that were faulty.” As a result, his conference presentation, “Presidential Rhetoric: What Difference Does It Make?,” was less a contribution to the research than a frontal assault on it. The paper consists largely of quotations from the other political scientists’ work, followed by comments such as “He is able to offer no systematic evidence,” and “We have no reason to accept such a conclusion,” and “Sometimes the authors’ assertions, implicit or explicit, are clearly wrong.”
Edwards ended his presentation with a study of his own, on Ronald Reagan, who is generally regarded as one of the Presidency’s great communicators. Edwards wrote, “If we cannot find evidence of the impact of the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, then we have reason to reconsider the broad assumptions regarding the consequences of rhetoric.” As it turns out, there was reason to reconsider. Reagan succeeded in passing major provisions of his agenda, such as the 1981 tax cuts, but, Edwards wrote, “surveys of public opinion have found that support for regulatory programs and spending on health care, welfare, urban problems, education, environmental protection and aid to minorities”—all programs that the President opposed—“increased rather than decreased during Reagan’s tenure.” Meanwhile, “support for increased defense expenditures was decidedly lower at the end of his administration than at the beginning.” In other words, people were less persuaded by Reagan when he left office than they were when he took office.
Nor was Reagan’s Presidency distinguished by an unusually strong personal connection with the electorate. A study by the Gallup organization, from 2004, found that, compared with all the Presidential job-approval ratings it had on record, Reagan’s was slightly below average, at fifty-three per cent. It was only after he left office that Americans came to see him as an unusually likable and effective leader.
According to Edwards, Reagan’s real achievement was to take advantage of a transformation that predated him. Edwards quotes various political scientists who found that conservative attitudes peaked, and liberal attitudes plateaued, in the late nineteen-seventies, and that Reagan was the beneficiary of these trends, rather than their instigator. Some of Reagan’s closest allies support this view. Martin Anderson, who served as Reagan’s chief domestic-policy adviser, wrote, “What has been called the Reagan revolution is not completely, or even mostly, due to Ronald Reagan. . . . It was the other way around.” Edwards later wrote, “As one can imagine, I was a big hit with the auditorium full of dedicated scholars of rhetoric.”
Edwards’s views are no longer considered radical in political-science circles, in part because he has marshalled so much evidence in support of them. In his book “On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit” (2003), he expanded the poll-based rigor that he applied to Reagan’s rhetorical influence to that of nearly every other President since the nineteen-thirties. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats are perhaps the most frequently cited example of Presidential persuasion. Cue Edwards: “He gave only two or three fireside chats a year, and rarely did he focus them on legislation under consideration in Congress. It appears that FDR only used a fireside chat to discuss such matters on four occasions, the clearest example being the broadcast on March 9, 1937, on the ill-fated ‘Court-packing’ bill.” Edwards also quotes the political scientists Matthew Baum and Samuel Kernell, who, in a more systematic examination of Roosevelt’s radio addresses, found that they fostered “less than a 1 percentage point increase” in his approval rating. His more traditional speeches didn’t do any better. He was unable to persuade Americans to enter the Second World War, for example, until Pearl Harbor.
No President worked harder to persuade the public, Edwards says, than Bill Clinton. Between his first inauguration, in January, 1993, and his first midterm election, in November, 1994, he travelled to nearly two hundred cities and towns, and made more than two hundred appearances, to sell his Presidency, his legislative initiatives (notably his health-care bill), and his party. But his poll numbers fell, the health-care bill failed, and, in the next election, the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in more than forty years. Yet Clinton never gave up on the idea that all he needed was a few more speeches, or a slightly better message. “I’ve got to . . . spend more time communicating with the American people,” the President said in a 1994 interview. Edwards notes, “It seems never to have occurred to him or his staff that his basic strategy may have been inherently flawed.”
George W. Bush was similarly invested in his persuasive ability. After the 2004 election, the Bush Administration turned to the longtime conservative dream of privatizing Social Security. Bush led the effort, with an unprecedented nationwide push that took him to sixty cities in sixty days. “Let me put it to you this way,” he said at a press conference, two days after the election. “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” But the poll numbers for privatization—and for the President—kept dropping, and the Administration turned to other issues.
Obama, too, believes in the power of Presidential rhetoric. After watching the poll numbers for his health-care plan, his stimulus bill, his Presidency, and his party decline throughout 2010, he told Peter Baker, of the Times, that he hadn’t done a good enough job communicating with the American people: “I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can’t be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”
The annual State of the Union address offers the clearest example of the misconception. The best speechwriters are put on the task. The biggest policy announcements are saved for it. The speech is carried on all the major networks, and Americans have traditionally considered watching it to be something of a civic duty. And yet Gallup, after reviewing polls dating back to 1978, concluded that “these speeches rarely affect a president’s public standing in a meaningful way, despite the amount of attention they receive.” Obama’s 2012 address fit the pattern. His approval rating was forty-six per cent on the day of the speech, and forty-seven per cent a week later.
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.
In January, 2004, George W. Bush announced his intention to “take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.” It was an occasion that might have presented a moment of bipartisan unity: a Republican President was proposing to spend billions of dollars on a public project to further John F. Kennedy’s dream of venturing deep into the cosmos. As Frances Lee, now a professor at the University of Maryland, recalls, “That wasn’t a partisan issue at all. Democrats had no position on sending a mission to Mars.” But, she says, “they suddenly began to develop one. They began to believe it was a waste of money.” Congressional Democrats pushed the argument in press releases, public statements, and television appearances. In response, the White House, which had hinted that the Mars mission would feature prominently in the State of the Union address, dropped it from the speech.
The experience helped to crystallize something that Lee had been thinking about. “Most of the work on the relationship between the President and Congress was about the President as the agenda setter,” she says. “I was coming at it from the perspective of the increase in partisanship, and so I looked at Presidents not as legislative leaders but as party leaders.” That changes things dramatically. As Lee writes in her book “Beyond Ideology” (2009), there are “inherent zero-sum conflicts between the two parties’ political interests as they seek to win elections.” Put more simply, the President’s party can’t win unless the other party loses. And both parties know it. This, Lee decided, is the true nature of our political system.
To test her theory, she created a database of eighty-six hundred Senate votes between 1981 and 2004. She found that a President’s powers of persuasion were strong, but only within his own party. Nearly four thousand of the votes were of the mission-to-Mars variety—they should have found support among both Democrats and Republicans. Absent a President’s involvement, these votes fell along party lines just a third of the time, but when a President took a stand that number rose to more than half. The same thing happened with votes on more partisan issues, such as bills that raised taxes; they typically split along party lines, but when a President intervened the divide was even sharper.
One way of interpreting this is that party members let their opinion of the President influence their evaluation of the issues. That’s not entirely unreasonable. A Democrat might have supported an intervention in Iraq but questioned George W. Bush’s ability to manage it effectively. Another interpretation is that party members let their political incentives influence how they evaluate policy. “Whatever people think about raw policy issues, they’re aware that Presidential successes will help the President’s party and hurt the opposing party,” Lee says. “It’s not to say they’re entirely cynical, but the fact that success is useful to the President’s party is going to have an effect on how members respond.” Or, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it’s difficult to get a man to support something if his reëlection depends on his not supporting it.
Both parties are guilty of this practice. Karl Rove, President Bush’s deputy chief of staff, recalls discussing the Social Security privatization plan with a sympathetic Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. He says that the representative told him, “You wouldn’t get everything you want and I wouldn’t get everything I want, but we could solve the problem. But I can’t do it because my leadership won’t let me.” Rove says, “It was less about Social Security than it was about George W. Bush.” At various times during the nineteen-nineties, Clinton and other Democrats had been open to adding some form of private accounts to Social Security, and in 1997 there were, reportedly, quiet discussions between Democrats and Republicans about doing exactly that. In theory, this background might have led to a compromise in 2005, but Bush’s aggressive sales pitch had polarized the issue.
The Obama Administration was taken by surprise when congressional Republicans turned against the individual mandate in health-care reform; it was the Republicans, after all, who had championed the idea, in 1993, as an alternative to the Clinton initiative. During the next decade, dozens of Senate Republicans co-sponsored health-care plans that included a mandate. Mitt Romney, of course, passed one when he was governor of Massachusetts. In 2007, when Senator Jim DeMint, of South Carolina—now a favorite of the Tea Party—endorsed Romney for President, he cited his health-care plan as a reason for doing so.
Senator Orrin Hatch, of Utah, who supported the mandate before he opposed it, shrugs off his party’s change of heart. “We were fighting Hillarycare,” he has said, of the Republicans’ original position. In other words, Clinton polarized Republicans against one health-care proposal, and then Obama turned them against another.
Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, takes Lee’s thesis even further. “The more high-profile the communication effort, the less likely it is to succeed,” he says. “In education reform, I think Obama has done brilliantly, largely because it’s out of the press. But on higher-profile things, like deficit reduction, he’s had a much tougher time.”
Edwards’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion isn’t effective with the public. Lee’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion might actually have an anti-persuasive effect on the opposing party in Congress. And, because our system of government usually requires at least some members of the opposition to work with the President if anything is to get done, that suggests that the President’s attempts at persuasion might have the perverse effect of making it harder for him to govern.
If speeches don’t make a difference, what does? Another look at the Presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan offers an answer. Roosevelt was one of only two Presidents in the twentieth century whose parties won seats in a midterm election. That was in 1934—a year in which the economy grew by ten per cent. But in the midterms of 1938, the year after the economy plunged into a double-dip recession, the Democrats lost seventy-two seats in the House. If Roosevelt had been running for reëlection, he, too, would almost certainly have lost.
During Reagan’s first two years in office, the economy fell into recession. By the time of the 1982 midterm election, unemployment had risen to 10.8 per cent and the economy had shrunk by two per cent. Already the minority party in the House, the Republicans lost twenty-six seats. Reagan’s approval rating went below forty per cent. But then the economy recovered. By November, 1984, unemployment had fallen to 7.2 per cent, and the economy, remarkably, was growing at an annual rate of seven per cent. Reagan was elected to a second term in a forty-nine-state landslide.
There is no reason to believe that F.D.R.’s storytelling faltered for a single midterm election, or that Reagan lost his persuasive ability in 1982, then managed to regain it two years later. Rather, the causality appears to work the other way around: Presidents win victories because ordinary Americans feel that their lives are going well, and we call those Presidents great communicators, because their public persona is the part of them we know.
After three years in Washington, David Axelrod, who served as the chief strategist for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, agrees. “Some folks in politics believe this is all just a rhetorical game, but when you’re governing it’s not,” he says. “People are viewing their lives through the lens of their own experience, not waiting for you to describe to them what they’re seeing or feeling.” Paul Begala, who helped set the message in the Clinton White House, puts it more piquantly: “The Titanic had an iceberg problem. It did not have a communications problem. Right now, the President has a jobs problem. If Obama had four-per-cent unemployment, he would be on Mt. Rushmore already and people would look at Nancy Pelosi like Lady Gaga.”
The question, Begala says, is: What is the alternative to Presidential persuasion? “If you don’t try it at all, it guarantees you won’t persuade anybody,” he says. “And, to put it simply, your people in Congress and in the country will hate you if you don’t.” That’s the real dilemma for the modern White House. Aggressive, public leadership is typically ineffective and, during periods of divided government, can actually make matters worse. But passivity is even more dangerous. In that case, you’re not getting anything done and you look like you’re not even trying.
One option is to exert private leadership. The Obama Administration has had some success with this approach. Late in 2010, some observers wondered why the White House, which clearly believed that there was a need for further stimulus, wasn’t pushing Republicans on a payroll-tax cut, one of the few stimulus measures they had seemed somewhat open to. Then, suddenly, after the midterm election, it appeared in the tax deal. Axelrod says, “We didn’t put the payroll-tax cut into our speeches in the fall because we didn’t think we could pass it, and we worried that if we included it in our rhetoric it might pollute the issue and impair our chances of getting it done after the election.”
Back-room bargains and quiet negotiations do not, however, present an inspiring vision of the Presidency. And they fail, too. Boehner and Obama spent much of last summer sitting in a room together, but, ultimately, the Speaker didn’t make a private deal with the President for the same reason that Republican legislators don’t swoon over a public speech by him: he is the leader of the Democratic Party, and if he wins they lose. This suggests that, as the two parties become more sharply divided, it may become increasingly difficult for a President to govern—and there’s little that he can do about it.
Theorists have long worried over this possibility. They note that our form of government is not common. As Juan Linz, a professor of political science at Yale, pointed out in a 1989 paper, “The only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States.” A broad tendency toward instability and partisan conflict, he writes, is woven into the fabric of a political system in which a democratically elected executive can come from one party and a democratically elected legislature from another. Both sides end up having control over some levers of power, a claim to be carrying out the will of the public, and incentives that point in opposite directions.
The American system has traditionally had certain features that reduced the stakes—notably, political parties that encompassed a diverse range of opinions and often acted at cross purposes with themselves. But today the parties operate as disciplined, consistent units. According to Congressional Quarterly, in 2009 and 2010 Democrats and Republicans voted with their parties ninety per cent of the time. That rigidity has made American democracy much more difficult to manage—and it has made the President, as party leader, a much more divisive figure.
Edwards, ever the data cruncher, has the numbers to back up this perception. “When President Obama took office, he enjoyed a 68 percent approval level, the highest of any newly elected president since John F. Kennedy,” he wrote in a recent paper. “For all of his hopes about bipartisanship, however, his early approval ratings were the most polarized of any president in the past four decades. By February 15, less than a month after taking office, only 30 percent of Republicans approved of his performance in office while 89 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Independents approved. The gap between Democratic and Republican approval had already reached 59 percentage points—and Obama never again reached even 30 percent approval among Republicans.”
This, Edwards says, is the reality facing modern Presidents, and one they would do well to accommodate. “In a rational world, strategies for governing should match the opportunities to be exploited,” he writes. “Barack Obama is only the latest in a long line of presidents who have not been able to transform the political landscape through their efforts at persuasion. When he succeeded in achieving major change, it was by mobilizing those predisposed to support him and driving legislation through Congress on a party-line vote.”
That’s easier said than done. We don’t have a system of government set up for Presidents to drive legislation through Congress. Rather, we have a system that was designed to encourage division between the branches but to resist the formation of political parties. The parties formed anyway, and they now use the branches to compete with one another. Add in minority protections like the filibuster, and you have a system in which the job of the President is to persuade an opposition party that has both the incentive and the power to resist him.
Jim Cooper says, “We’ve effectively lost our Congress and gained a parliament.” He adds, “At least a Prime Minister is empowered to get things done,” but “we have the extreme polarization of a parliament, with party-line voting, without the empowered Prime Minister.” And you can’t solve that with a speech. ♦
Republican presidential debates are not for the faint-hearted. Last week in Jacksonville, Florida, Rick Santorum warned of the "threat of radical Islam growing" in Central and South America. Newt Gingrich advocated sending up to seven flights a day to the moon, where private industry might set up a colony, and reaffirmed his claim that Palestinians were invented in the late 70s. Mitt Romney argued that if you make things tough enough for undocumented people, they will "self-deport".
Given the general state of the Republican party, such comments now attract precious little attention. Truth and facts are but two options among many. The party's base, overrun by birthers, climate change deniers and creationists, floats its warped theories and every now and then one makes it to the top and bobs out into the airwaves.
So the oft-touted notion that these debates have been responsible for shifting the trajectory of this primary race would be worrying if it were true. It is difficult to think of anywhere else in the western world where these debates would have any credibility outside of a fringe party (even if the fringes in Europe are now spreading). Far from indicating America's exceptionalism, it looks more like an awful parody of the stereotypes most outsiders already believed about American politics at its most bizarre. "Those who follow this race daily may have long since lost perspective on how absurd it is," said the German magazine Der Spiegel last week. "Each candidate loves Israel. They all love Ronald Reagan. Each loves his wife, a born first lady, for a number of reasons."
The good news is, with the exception of Perry's demise, the debates have not been pivotal. The bad news is that the truly decisive element has been something even more insidious: money. Lots of it.
This is not new. But since a 2010 supreme court ruling allowing unlimited campaign contributions by corporations and unions, it has become particularly acute. Moreover, the contributors can remain anonymous. The organisations that are taking advantage of this new law are known as Super Pacs. Even at this early stage of the presidential cycle, their potential for framing the race is clear. In the whole of 2008 individuals, parties and other groups spent $168.8m independently on the presidential election. This year on Republican candidates alone, where voting started less than a month ago, the Super Pacs have reported independent expenditures of almost $40m. In 2008 election spending doubled compared with 2004. This year industry analysts believe the money spent just on television ads is set to leap by almost 80% compared with four years ago.
Money in American politics was already an elephant in the room. Now the supreme court has given it a laxative, taken away the shovel, and asked us to ignore both the sight and the stench.
The only real restriction is that there should be no co-ordination between the candidate and the Super Pac. In practice, this is little more than a fig leaf. A few weeks ago one of the ads, funded by the Super Pac supporting Gingrich, was slated for its many brazen inaccuracies. At a campaign stop in Orlando, Gingrich told supporters: "I am calling on this Super Pac – I cannot co-ordinate with them and I cannot communicate directly, but I can speak out as a citizen as I'm talking to you – I call on them to either edit out every single mistake or to pull the entire film."
Romney is no less compromised. His former chief campaign fundraiser and political director work for the main Super Pac supporting him, which was set up with the help of a $1m cheque from an ex-business partner. "This legalism of 'no co-ordination' is a filament-thin G-string," wrote Timothy Egan in the New York Times recently. "Everyone co-ordinates."
Money alone can't guarantee success. Santorum spent around 74 cents a voter in Iowa and narrowly won; Perry spent around $358 per vote and came a distant fourth. Debate performances, policy positions, personal histories and retail politics play a role. But the fact that money is not the sole determinant doesn't mean it's not the key one. Two months ago Gingrich's surge in Iowa was halted after Romney's Super Pac ploughed millions of dollars into campaign ads attacking him. Romney's commanding lead in South Carolina was similarly thwarted when Gingrich's Super Pac injected several million dollars.
This is not a partisan point. Almost two-thirds of Americans believe the government should limit individual contributions – with a majority among Republicans, Democrats and independents. The influence of money at this level corrupts an entire political culture and in no small part explains the depth of cynicism, alienation and mistrust Americans now have for their politicians.
The trend towards oligarchy in the polity is already clear. There are 250 millionaires in Congress. As a whole, the polity's median net worth is $891,506, nine times the typical US household. Around 11% are in the nation's top 1%, including 34 Republicans and 23 Democrats. And that's before you get to Romney, whose personal wealth is double that of the last eight presidents combined. All of this would be problematic at the best of times, but in a period of rising inequality it is obscene.
The issue here is not class envy, hating rich people because they are rich, but class interests – cementing the advantages of the privileged over the rest. The problem is not personal, it's systemic. In the current climate, it means a group of wealthy people in business will decide which wealthy people in Congress they would like to tell poor people what they can't have because times are hard. And unless the ruling is overturned there is precious little that can be done about it.
Last week in a Massachusetts Senate race, both the Republican incumbent and his likely Democratic challenger signed a pact agreeing not to use third-party money. The trouble is that the agreement is completely unenforceable. Already at least one pro-Republican group has refused to commit to it.
Downplaying money's central role at this point merely buys into the illusion of participatory democracy, where ideas, character and strategy are paramount, while others are actually buying the candidates and access to power. The result is a charade. Fig leaf, G-string – name the scanty underwear of your choice. The emperor is butt naked. Whoever you vote for, the money gets in.
• Follow Gary Younge on Twitter @garyyounge
• This article was amended on 1 February 2012 to make clear that it is Congress as a whole that has a median net worth of $891,506.