The twilight of the presidential bully pulpit

Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 12:02 a.m.
President George W. Bush's speech to the nation on Jan. 10, 2007, in which he announced plans for a "surge" of 21,000 troops into Iraq to secure Baghdad, has failed miserably.
Polls show Bush's job approval hovering in the low 30s, a nadir for the president. Three-fifths of Americans surveyed after the speech disagree with the plan to send more troops; approximately the same level of disaccord as before the speech.
By taking to the airwaves and "going public" with his appeal over the heads of members of Congress and directly to the American people, Bush sought to rally support at the grassroots level. The speech served another purpose as well - to pre-empt Democrats on Capitol Hill from de-funding the military occupation when the congressional appropriations process reprises this spring. As several Democrats have disappointingly admitted, by the time the legislative process catches up to Bush's plans the deployment of the forces will be a fait accompli.
Bush's abortive attempt to galvanize public support for the war in Iraq will nevertheless be recorded in the burgeoning annals of presidential failures to transform public opinion. The results have been stunning policy failures.
Bill Clinton lamented his inability to marshal support behind his health care plan in 1993. The more Clinton "went public" the less favor the plan found in the electorate.
George H.W. Bush's televised attempt to convince the public to support the complex 1990 budget agreement, which violated his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge, had the inverse effect of eroding support for the agreement and precipitated its collapse.
Even Ronald Reagan, the "Great Communicator," expressed profound frustration about his incapacity to persuade the public that leftist regimes in Central America posed a severe threat to American security and should be overthrown. The result was the most serious constitutional crisis since Watergate: Iran-Contra.
Presidents simply fail to grasp that their speechmaking has a highly circumscribed margin of influence over public views. The most for which presidents can hope is to reinforce public support for policy action. Ronald Reagan's 1981 budget speech brought congressional assent for his plans to cut federal domestic spending because there was broad public concurrence to try a different approach to economic management.
Even Harry Truman's magnificent "Truman Doctrine" speech, which called for foreign aid to Greece and Turkey, buttressed a latent consensus in the electorate that America had not sacrificed so many young men in World War II to allow European regimes to succumb to communism.
The hard, cold fact is that when they are out of touch with public sentiment, presidential appeals typically fall "on deaf ears," as Texas A&M University presidential scholar George C. Edwards contends.
Why, then, do presidents persist in attempting to mold public opinion in the face of strong public resistance to their policies? The problem is that the modern White House communications operation refuses to appreciate the remarkable stability of the public's views.
Increasingly presidents and their advisers clutch the false belief that lack of support for their policies is a failure of effectively communicating those policies. The problem is allegedly one of marketing. They pay little attention to elections, such as the 2006 mid-terms, that were nothing less than a repudiation of the current course of action.
George W. Bush's stubborn refusal to comprehend the relative immovability of the public's views concerning Iraq risks exacerbating a severe crisis of confidence in our national institutions.
It is imperative to note that even as Bush made desperately impassioned public appeals in 2003 about Saddam Hussein's putative cache of "weapons of mass destruction," public support for invading Iraq never increased.
Now, the White House's rebuff of the Baker-Hamilton Commission's recommendations and growing congressional aggravation on both sides of the aisle with the Administration's intransigence over military policy in Iraq has eroded public trust in the executive to levels that chased Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon from office.
Ironically, the branch of government the Founders expected to be most sensitive to public sentiment, the Congress, has repeatedly abdicated its purse-strings authority to effectively rein in presidential military adventurism. No wonder Americans continue to deride Congress and suffer from a declining sense of political efficacy, the belief that their opinions matter to policymakers.
Leadership requires followership, not ultimatums. Until Bush grasps the necessity of using the bully pulpit to reflect the concerns of the electorate rather than obdurately trying to challenge and alter the public's views on Iraq, his future pleas will continue to be swept into the dust bin of presidential speechmaking.
Whether Congress pays attention to the strong majority of Americans who want a disengagement from Iraq may well determine its future in our constitutional order, scarcely a trivial matter for a country attempting to impose democratic governance abroad.
Richard S. Conley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and a scholar of the U.S. presidency.
His e-mail is

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