Theodore Roosevelt had his bully pulpit, magnified by the big-city newspapers. Franklin D. Roosevelt had his fireside chats, carried to millions on the radio. John F. Kennedy had his televised press conferences. Ronald Reagan had his prime-time addresses from the Oval Office.
All of them used the dominant medium of their times to help Americans understand the problems they faced and explain how the president would improve their lives. In other words, these presidents became educators in chief, and their communication skills helped them to be very effective leaders. Now, it's Barack Obama's turn, and he realizes the success of his presidency depends on his ability to capture and exploit the zeitgeist in which Americans want bold government action to end the current economic crisis.
He tried to ride that wave in his prime-time news conference Monday night. "It is absolutely true that we can't depend on government alone to create jobs or economic growth," Obama said in his professorial way. "That is and must be the role of the private sector. But at this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life. It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money, which leads to even more layoffs. And breaking that cycle is exactly what the plan that's moving through Congress is designed to do." This afternoon, propelled in part by Obama's urgent appeals, that plan moved another step closer to passage when House and Senate negotiators agreed on the framework of a $789 billion compromise.
"All of our great presidents were leaders of thought at a time when certain ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified," FDR said shortly after he won the 1932 election. As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted: "To succeed, presidents not only must have a port to seek but they must convince Congress and the electorate that it is a port worth seeking. Politics in a democracy is ultimately an educational process, an adventure in persuasion and consent. Every president stands in Theodore Roosevelt's bully pulpit."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says Obama gets it. "People are going to have confidence in him if they have confidence that he understands where they are and where we are as a people, how we got here and how we're going to get out of this mess," says Gibbs. "And I think he believes that if he doesn't continue to bring the country along in his thinking that he'll lose them. And I think we've seen that at different points in our history, and how important it is to continue that sort of long-running conversation with the American people."
Adds Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg: "Great leaders, bold leaders play an educative role." A president's effectiveness requires "the ability to move people, enlist them, inspire them" and the ability to talk about the scope of the nation's problems and promote possible solutions, Greenberg says. By contrast, he says President George W. Bush was a poor communicator. "I never had any fear when he went on the air," such as when he tried, unsuccessfully, to promote his overhaul of Social Security or his policies on immigration, says Greenberg. "I was never worried he could bring people with him." There was one exception—Bush's strong performance in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "when he did play an educator's role," Greenberg says, and briefly "brought people together." Otherwise, Bush couldn't mobilize public opinion, only his conservative base.
Peter Schwartz, chairman of the Global Business Network, a research and consulting group, compares President Obama to President Harry Truman, who reinvented many of the nation's governing institutions after World War II, such as the national security apparatus at the White House and the Pentagon. Obama is arriving "not after a war but after the same kind of shattering of institutions that a war does," Schwartz told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. "His job is to restore confidence to these institutions that have been at the foundation of our economy."