Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Listening Problem...

Erza Klein:

Matt Bai blames the Democrats' plight in part on a rhetorical failure of the president. The economic crisis, Bai says, was an opportunity to deliver "one of his trademark orations to an anxious public...explaining then that the country had to respond in two related but distinct ways — first by spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the short term to avoid a depression, and then by making a series of large-scale investments over time that would modernize the foundation of the economy."

Jon Chait, sensibly enough, quotes four major speeches where President Obama said exactly those things. And you could of course quote others. The fact that the economic crisis required both short- and long-term measures has been among their major themes since the beginning. They even put it in the name of the stimulus bill: It was called the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act." It's just that no one listened.

To read pundits talking about presidential speeches, you'd think there was a statute requiring every American to watch every presidential address and then score a 75 percent or higher on a quiz testing their listening skills. In fact, pretty much no one watches presidential speeches. Obama's 2010 State of the Union got 48 million viewers. His Iraq speech last week grabbed about 29 million of the country. Most of the others speeches get much smaller shares. No one, as far as I can tell, pays attention to the weekly radio address, or the average midday remarks.

And that's fine. It's good that we're not a dictatorship where everyone feels the need to memorize every word the leader utters. But it puts the lie to the idea that the president can simply orate a narrative directly into the American psyche. A small minority -- many of them political junkies who already know what they think -- will occasionally tune in to a particularly momentous address, and they may or may not stay for the whole thing, and they may or may not actually pay attention while they're watching. Somewhat more people will then get a partial summary through news coverage the next day. A week later, most people won't have heard the speech, and the few who did see or read the whole thing will largely have forgotten it. This is, in part, why presidents are worse at persuasion than people think: They do not have the rapt audience that so many assume.

And that doesn't just go for the average voters. In theory, political journalists are paid to pay attention to what the president says. In reality, they ignore most of it. This tends to frustrate White House staff, who put a lot of work into even minor statements like the weekly address only to see them ignored by writers who'd prefer if the same information were whispered into their ears. From the journalist's perspective, of course, this makes some sense: You're trying to find out things other people don't know, and in theory, everyone knows things that are in the speeches. But in reality, since no one is paying attention to the speeches, there's a lot in there that never penetrates into either the public consciousness or the media's thinking, and all White Houses are routinely criticized for not making arguments that they make all the time.