When it comes to ranking the greatest communicators in the White House, Ronald Reagan and the two Roosevelts, Franklin and Theodore, deserve top billing as does the current president. But even in the age of communication presidents cannot rely solely or mostly on what Samuel Kernell has explained as the need to “go public” and win popular support for presidential policies.
Barack Obama’s personal and his campaign camp’s communication skills were instrumental in winning first his party’s nomination and ultimately the presidency. Once in the White House, however, a president’s power to get his enacted does not derive from public support only.
To be sure, public support is very important. The idea here is that popular backing of presidential policies will help to persuade members of congress and other influential actors to follow presidential leadership. Yet, bargaining with and convincing Washingtonians at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue that it is in everyone’s interest to follow the president’s lead remains very much part of presidential power as it was in the past and as Richard Neustadt described it so well fifty years ago.
More recently, as presidential scholar Richard Rose recognized, post-modern presidents face three imperatives: going public, going Washington, and going international in the sense of communicating with and persuading the general public and fellow-decision-makers at home as well as foreign governments and publics.
Going public and going Washington effectively is imperative especially with respect to a domestic policy goal that aims at fundamental changes. Meaningful health care reform is such a policy objective.
But, strangely and inexplicitly, President Obama was late on both counts. It was only after the opposition had gone public and eroded public support for a meaningful health care reform that candidate Obama promised during the campaign that the White House decided in favor of direct presidential appeals to the American people. And to this day, there is no intensive “going Washington” campaign.
To persuade members of Congress it is not enough to invite a bunch of representatives and senators to the White House for a group session with the president. As Lyndon Johnson demonstrated, when he pressed for key civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, support for highly controversial policies can be won by one-on-one contacts with as many individual law-makers as possible. The great communicator Ronald Reagan, too, worked the phones to push members of congress to support his first budget and major tax cuts—although he was recovering at the time from the injuries suffered during an assassination attempt.Perhaps it would be too late now to make a difference in the outcome of the health care reform but White House aides should read or reread some basic literature on presidential power—starting with Neustadt, Kernell, and Rose.