Just the Facts

Five Facts on Presidents “Going to the Public”

By No Labels
January 9, 2019 | Blog

U.S. Presidents have enormous power to communicate directly with the American people, command media attention, and drive the debate on important issues. Even before the age of social media, during times of national crisis, mourning, or other important moments, presidents have used everything from railroads to broadcast media to talk past critics in Congress and in the chattering classes and speak directly to the citizenry.

Last night, President Trump joined a long line of predecessors in attempting to make this kind of rhetorical end-run around those who oppose his agenda through a nationally televised address in support his proposed border wall (the driving factor behind the prolonged government shutdown). While the president’s tone was softer than usual—calling the border situation a “crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul”.

Only time will tell whether the president was effective or not on Tuesday night—but history tells us that making this kind of direct appeal to the people can be both powerfully effectively and potentially problematic for those occupying the Oval Office. Check out below for five facts about presidents “going to the public.”

Several presidents throughout history have made direct appeals to the nation

One of the first presidents to pioneer the tactics of public appeal was President Theodore Roosevelt, who first toured the nation to promote his ideas, courted the White House press corps, and coined the term “The Bully Pulpit.” His successors have followed suit. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan—one of this tactic’s most capable practitioners—promoted his proposed tax cuts on national television 48 hours before the House was scheduled to vote on it. In 2009, President Barack Obama traveled across the nation to various states directly appealing to citizens to support his argument for a health care overhaul.

In more recent history, it is customary for presidential addresses to occur in the Oval Office

Some Presidents have also used props: Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight D. Eisenhower often used tabletop lecterns during their addresses. President George W. Bush positioned himself in front of the Resolute Desk rather than sitting to convey the Oval Office as a working space. President Reagan often used charts when explaining his initiatives on television. Not all presidents have consistently used the Oval Office as their location for national appeals, however. During the Watergate scandal, for example, President Richard Nixon addressed the nation from Walt Disney World, where he made his infamous “I am not a crook” statement.

Before the creation of television, presidents and politicians appealed to the public mostly through the print press

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many newspapers were arms of political parties (or even individual politicians). Rather than streaming an address, newspapers would publish blusterous commentary on their preferred politician’s speeches to the public. According to the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics, before the Civil War, political parties subsidized the operations of many newspapers. They also highlighted political disputes between politicians, such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (whose later-in-life friendship cannot cover up the nastiness of their political brawling during and soon after the creation of the Republic).

Today, presidents are beholden to news networks to broadcast their public appeal

“Going to the public” can be difficult to implement, even for the commander in chief. Presidents must request air time from networks in advance. And before President Trump’s speech Tuesday night, network executives sparred over whether or not to grant the president air time before ultimately deciding to grant his request. Broadcast stations have denied presidents access to airways before. In 2014, President Obama wanted to deliver an immigration address, but certain networks said no because the president would have cut into time reserved for some of their most popular shows.

Not all presidential appeals have been successful—some have even backfired

In 1993 and 1994, the Clinton Administration went on a national campaign to promote health care reform. In the end, neither the House nor the Senate ever voted on their health care package. And in 1937, FDR announced to the public his plan to expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 judges. Despite his use of the famed “fireside chat,” where he asked the public to support his measure, FDR’s attempt backfired. Critics accused him of trying to “pack” the court in an effort to expand the New Deal by fiat, and the initiative was never voted on in Congress.

While FDR’s failure to add to the Supreme Court is considered a signature moment in U.S. history, it is President Obama’s barnstorming tour in support of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that holds the most important lesson for both President Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress. Even though Obama and his fellow Democrats were ultimately successful in passing the ACA into law, they ultimately did so on a party-line vote with no Republican support.

As a result, U.S. health care policy has been in limbo for more than a decade as Republicans work to reverse the law through the courts and legislation—all of which could have been if President Obama and congressional Republicans had been able to come to a compromise and create the kind of bipartisan legislation that stands the test of time.






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