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.