In the 2010 film “The King’s Speech,” Colin Firth plays the future King George VI, who recognizes he must try to gain control over his lifelong stammer. Though he knew he would not be required to speak often – British royalty speaks publicly only infrequently – he understood how important it would be for him, as the king of England, to speak with authority during the national crisis that was Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, in 1939.
American presidents have long understood their political system, in which power is divided among the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, requires they have the capacity to persuade. Theodore Roosevelt famously spoke of the “bully pulpit” – he knew the office of the presidency provided him with best possible perch for propagating his policies. Moreover now, in the third decade of the 21st century – given the American people are especially fractious and contentious; and given the fierce competition among information, misinformation, and disinformation – the president’s ability to use his post to sell himself and his program is more important than ever.
Like all leaders, presidents can exercise influence in different ways. However, none are nearly as important as the capacity to communicate. In the case of the American president this communication is generally in the form of speech. Leaders speak. Ideally, followers listen. Not for nothing was Ronald Reagan called “the great communicator.” He was especially skilled at connecting with his audiences, informally and in prepared speeches, on television and in person. When it came to the spoken word, Reagan in his prime was pointed and adroit, sometimes spontaneous, usually charming, often funny.
For those among us who dread the idea of Republicans regaining control of Congress in 2022, not to speak of the White House in 2024, the fact that President Joe Biden is the opposite of the great communicator – he is instead a reluctant and poor communicator – is, or should be, of utmost concern. Biden virtually never faces a roomful of reporters, and he rarely even gives one-on-one interviews. Moreover, when he speaks, he usually reads from a script previously prepared.
What’s going on here? Why is this once famously loquacious leader now reduced to shying away from the people and the press except in the most rigidly controlled circumstances? I don’t rightly know. But I assume he avoids public speaking because he and his aides are afraid. Afraid he will make a verbal gaffe, or factual error from which he will find it difficult if not impossible to recover.
I get it. Joe Biden is diminished in recent years. Since the death of his son Beau in 2015, he is not what he was once – a happy warrior. Still, the president must be more willing than he has been to take a rhetorical risk. Like George VI he must do what it takes to prepare himself, train himself if necessary, for speaking in public when the occasion demands. Which it often does. For Biden’s failure to use the bully pulpit to better effect will, I fear, cost him, and the American people, dearly.
There is another, broader lesson here. In the third decade of the 21st century leaders in liberal democracies don’t have many arrows in their quiver. Those they do have must, then, be employed to maximum effect.