One of the most important and difficult roles of the president is to convince the American people that things will get better. During times of economic and political difficulty, pessimism can become self-fulfilling. Public anxiety makes people hesitant to cooperate, to invest, and to act in creative ways. The office of the presidency was designed by the Founding Fathers as a national pedestal to lift the American people up from their self-doubts. The office is best seen as a bully pulpit, in Theodore Roosevelt’s words, for rallying the country.
The problem is that presidents control their rhetoric, but they do not control the economy. The choices of business and consumers have the greatest effect on growth and productivity. The market expectations of profit and loss dictate stock and bond values. Independent assessments of risk influence interest rates. The balance between the supply of goods and the demand for those goods shapes the rate of inflation. Presidents can influence these economic factors with their spending and tax policies, but they are constrained in their leverage. Their efforts are often counter-acted by the decisions of citizens and business groups. The same is true for foreign policy, where numerous actors overseas can undermine the most sound and promising presidential strategies.
Anxiety and pessimism corrode power. Presidents feel an imperative to make people think in positive and hopeful terms. The presidential candidates today are trying to do just that. Each wants voters to believe that he can create jobs, reduce debt, and stimulate growth. Each asserts a strong faith in the resilience of Americans, if led well.
Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were master communicators in two different eras. They both came into office during periods of high unemployment and absent economic growth. Neither had quick solutions, but both gained traction on the challenges they confronted by mobilizing citizens to work in more creative ways. Roosevelt and Reagan made people believe in themselves and new opportunities. The hope they encouraged through speeches energized frustrated citizens to believe in themselves again. Obama and Romney are trying to do the same.
Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address from 4 March 1933 and Reagan’s State of the Union Speech from 25 January 1983 offer powerful insights into how these great communicators uplifted their listeners. Pay attention to their words. How did they convince listeners that things would get better? How might Obama and Romney do the same today?
Watch President Franklin Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address, 4 March 1933 on C-SPAN.
Watch President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union Address, 25 January 1983 on YouTube.
Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs. He teaches courses on the history of international affairs, global strategy and contemporary politics in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts. His research interests include the formation and spread of nation-states; the emergence of modern international relations; the connections between foreign policy and domestic politics; the rise of knowledge of institutions as global actors; contemporary foreign policy; international security; protest and dissident movements, and globalization. Professor Suri blogs on foreign policy and contemporary politics at http://globalbrief.ca.