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Presidential Speeches: Sound And (Partisan) Fury, Signifying Not Much

When presidents give major set-piece speeches, they're mainly engaged in exercises in futility since a commander-in-chief's high-flown rhetoric rarely shifts voter attitudes for long.

Indeed, the exercise could even be more negative than neutral since speeches by presidents advocating specific policy not only leave citizen unswayed but can fire up political opponents in the other party, according to Ezra Klein in an essay in the New Yorker.

Indeed, after reading Klein, who also blogs for the Washington Post, it seems like presidential speeches are often the rhetorical equivalent of the old and discredited medical practice of bleeding patients; not doing much good in most cases, definitely harmful in many others.

Still presidents continue to do what they do in the speechifying department, just like the doctors of old who drained their patients of their precious life stuff. Maybe it's because presidents like the physicians of past centuries can't apparently think of a better alternative.

Actually, Klein cites political scientist George Edwards who says the prevailing state of affairs has more to do with the differences between campaigning and governing.

" Edwards believes that by the time Presidents reach the White House their careers have taught them that they can persuade anyone of anything. 'Think about how these guys become President," he says. "The normal way is talking for two years. That's all you do, and somehow you win. You must be a really persuasive fellow.'

"But being President isn't the same as running for President. When you're running for President, giving a good speech helps you achieve your goals. When you are President, giving a good speech can prevent you from achieving them."

Klein provides several examples where presidential rhetoric appears to have hardened an Oval Office occupant's opponents against him, including George W. Bush's speeches for reforming Social Security and Obama's for health care reform.

It's really a fascinating problem to consider. No matter how excellently crafted and delivered are a president's speeches, it's the real lives of voters that matter most even if voters' perceptions are arguably unfair.

That's borne out in the latest Washington Post/ABC News polling that shows Obama's approval ratings falling as gas prices rise.

The difficulty was captured aptly by Democratic political strategist and pundit, Paul Begala, who Klein quotes:

" 'The Titanic had an iceberg problem. It did not have a communications problem. Right now, the President has a jobs problem. If Obama had four-per-cent unemployment, he would be on Mt. Rushmore already and people would look at Nancy Pelosi like Lady Gaga.' "

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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