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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > The Effectiveness of Presidential Speeches

Last spring, before President Carter’s energy speech to the nation, General Motors was worried about the slow sales of its Chevette. After the speech, which emphasized the need for energy conservation, Chevette sales signifi­cantly improved. GM makes a direct connection between Carter’s remarks and the sales up­surge.

Clearly, when Presidents speak, some Ameri­cans listen. But of all the analysis done on the use of Presidential powers, the speechmaking power, informal as it is discretionary, has re­ceived little attention. How much effect do such speeches have on people’s attitudes, their moti­vation, and their behavior?

Much depends on what kinds of speeches are delivered and their purpose. Historically, Presi­dential speeches have tried to (a) rally the country around proposed legislation or contro­versial federal programs, (b) assist directly the re-election chances of the incumbent, (c) defend the incumbent against criticism, (d) send indi­rect messages to foreign adversaries or allies on national security or economic matters, or (e) ingratiate the President with an important spe­cial interest bloc at their annual convention.

PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT’S SPEECHES often served several of these purposes together and inspired a depression-weary nation to recover some hope. President Kennedy sensed that eloquent words from the White House, fol­lowed by a program like the Peace Corps, could change the careers and directions of many young and older Americans.

Judging by the record to date, President Car­ter does not place much value on domestic speechmaking. He has made speeches on for­eign affairs but very few major speeches on domestic matters and those were largely related to energy legislation.

Some of his associates believe that domestic addresses are largely rhetoric and a waste of Presidential time and capital. Other, more cau­tious, advisers believe that they could generate misunderstandings which the White House does not need.

This is unfortunate and not only because President Carter is known to be upset over the way his schedule is filled every day. It is unfor­tunate because properly focused Presidential addresses can have highly beneficial effects on various groups in our society. A President needs to speak to these groups in the context of sharp­ening appreciation of their rights and enlarging their ability to engage in self-government and other citizen initiatives.

TAKE THREE kinds of speeches that Presi­dent Carter can make, without burdening the Treasury. The students of America have not heard from the President. He has much to tell them that is constructive, wholesome, and moti­vating beyond mere rhetoric. It is a particularly auspicious time to speak to students, many of whom lack a sense of mission for themselves and for their country. The tandem advance of educational achievement and citizen training is ripe for Presidential recognition. His associ­ates, particularly aide Greg Schneiders, have much to suggest in this area.

Second, not many yards from the White House, there labors a team on Carter’s govern­ment reorganization plans. These plans will try to make government become more efficient, produce more effective policies, and be more accountable to citizens. The accountability recommendations are the most important of this triad and a significant precondition for the other two goals,

A well-structured Presidential address on governmental accountability, with specific reference to protecting ethical whistle-blowers inside government and providing remedies for aggrieved citizens outside government vis-a-vis officials who behave unlawfully, would be in ac­cord with Carter’s campaign statements. Such remarks would uplift the conscientious civil ser­vants who hold dear the public trust and gener­ate broad public discussion about this little-noticed but crucial issue.

THIRD, ACROSS THE country the neighbor­hood and block association movement is growing. In New York, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and other cities, the neighborhoods are organiz­ing to protect their interests and redirect gov­ernment along more just pathways.

They are waiting for an indication of Presi­dential understanding and creativity. They are not looking for an expression of “neighborhood confidence,” as the industrial community keeps demanding from the White House with its code phrase — “business confidence.” Instead, they want the instruments and opportunities for greater self-reliance and self-determination at the community and national level.

What Presidential addresses can do immedi­ately is to take local developments and give them national visibility. Presidents can also take unglamorous but essential subjects, ne­glected by the media, and make even Time Magazine sit up and take notice.

President Carter should not neglect using this important White House resource. Words endure. Words that are meant endure more. And words that quicken the pulse of the citizenry can last for generations. History has shown us the truth of such an observation.