What presidential communication can and can’t do

By: Julia R. Azari

On the eve of the presidential inauguration, the United States faces a challenging political situation. For the second time in sixteen years, the winner of the popular vote will not take office. A divisive election season has left the nation exhausted. Rallies and communication with the electorate – directly through Twitter and television – have been a crucial part of Trump’s political rise. What do scholars know about presidential communication and its relationship to political conflict?

Giving speeches on television is one of the most visible aspects of presidential leadership. Figuring out the impact of these speeches is more difficult. Some political science research suggests that presidential speeches rarely move public opinion very much. Persuading people to change their minds about a political issue is an uphill battle – most people who are active participants in politics are likely to have already made up their minds.

At the same time, it’s hard to argue that rhetoric and communication haven’t played an important role in Obama’s presidency and in the 2016 election. Obama’s rhetoric about unity – going as far back as 2004 – contributed to his political rise. And in the 2016, Trump’s promises to “make America great again” spoke to primary voters, and later, enough general election voters in key states to win the presidency. Political communication scholars offer some context for this; rhetoric from presidents and presidential candidates is not simply about persuading people, but about defining political situations, using symbols to give events meaning. It matters whether presidents call something a “war” or draw the public’s attention to the racial, economic, or social implications of an event. Even if some people oppose the frame that’s offered, the frame often remains the central reference point.

Recent presidencies offer a few vivid examples of this. Let’s consider George W. Bush’s rhetoric after the September 11, 2001 attacks and in the politics that followed. Bush used memorable phrases like “you’re either with us, or you’re against us” and “axis of evil.” These phrases hardly persuaded everyone, and many of Bush’s critics zeroed in on these kinds of statements as examples of why they disagreed with his worldview. But this worldview – one informed by Bush’s commitment to defining good and evil – required others to respond to it, positively or negatively.

Obama’s opportunities to shape politics with rhetoric have been somewhat different. His presidency has faced no shortage of tragedies – the Newtown shooting in 2012 and the Charleston church massacre in 2015 among them – but no defining event like 9-11. As the first African-American president, Obama’s rhetoric about race took on special significance. Inviting criticism as well as empathy, Obama said of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager gunned down by a neighbor, “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Obama’s speeches at funeral services for the Charleston victims and at an event commemorating the “bloody Sunday” civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, highlighted his unique connection to the country’s tumultuous racial history. These rhetorical events merged race and presidential politics, potentially altering the course of both.

As we observe the incoming Trump administration, we should take the power of presidential communication, as well as its limits, very seriously. Before he’s even taken office, Trump himself has become a highly visible symbol – of outsider politics, of “law and order” politics, of deep divides on race, immigration, education, and gender. His phrases have leaked into the popular lexicon. Yet, we can’t expect that his words will change people’s fundamental attitudes about policy issues. This is the challenge of presidential rhetoric in a divided country: it can’t resolve these divisions, but it can shape what they mean.

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