2.7—Presidential Communication

One of the most powerful informal powers of the presidency is their ability to communicate with Americans, other branches of government, and the world. That power intensifies if they are a skilled communicator and popular with the American people. In this section, you should learn how presidents use this power, and how communication technology increased this power (radio, then television, internet, and now social media).

What you need to learn

How do presidents use their informal power of communication and persuasion, and how has communication technology shaped a president’s relationship with the American people and other branches of government?

Vocab Terms

bully pulpit

fireside chats

Communication & Informal Powers

the power of presidential persuasion

state of the union address

Communication Mediums

role of newspapers

role of radio

role of television

role of social media

Additional terms found in reading below

presidential communications staff

spin and manipulation

image control

Presidential Communication

The Constitution grants the president the power “to recommend” to Congress “such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient,” meaning he can try to influence the legislative actions of Congress, especially from the perspective of the manager who would carry out such policies. How a president attempts to persuade the legislative branch and shape policy has changed dramatically over the life of the Constitution. In addition, the way the president communicates to the people of the United States has changed significantly.

Communicator in Chief

In a democracy, the president’s need to communicate with the citizenry and keep good relations with Americans is essential for success. Citizens must desire the president’s proposed bills and foreign policy plans. If not, they will pressure their representative or senator to vote against them. The executive branch must publicize its reasons and benefits for proposed legislation. Another function the president assumes, then, is “communicator in chief.” Meanwhile, a free press entitles citizen-journalists to tell their readers, listeners, and viewers about the government. Among the government entities they are most interested in is the executive branch and its head, the president.

Relationship with the Press

In the early 1900s, as national newspapers grew, Theodore Roosevelt developed a unique relationship with the press. He referred to the presidency as a bully pulpit–a prominent stage from where he could pitch ideas to the American people. With “bully,” he meant “excellent,” not aggressive or violent, persuasion. He could speak to the people using his powers of persuasion, and the people would in turn persuade Congress. He sometimes spoke with reporters while getting his morning shave. With his colorful remarks, unique ideas, and vibrant persona Roosevelt always provided a good story. He and his Cabinet officials distributed speeches and photos to journalists to use in their reports, and he saved the richest pieces of information for his favorite journalists. The media’s attention on the president enhanced the power of the bully pulpit. Though he did not mean “bully in the modern sense, his actions often had that persuasive effect on Congress.

Later in the 1930s, in efforts to gain support for his New Deal legislation, Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) used his informal powers of persuasion to ensure that Congress enacted the measures. FDR used the popular radio medium to address Americans during his “fireside chats.” He reassured a worried populace and articulated his solutions in a persuasive way. After each “chat,” letters from listeners flooded Congress to support the president’s ideas.

State of the Union Address

The Constitution requires the president to report to Congress from time to time on the state of the Union. The president explains the economic, military, and social state of the nation, proposes new policies, and explains how government programs are being administered. George Washington and John Adams drafted their first reports and delivered these in person as speeches. Thomas Jefferson broke that pattern, declaring a speech looked too much like a British monarch opening Parliament, so he delivered his report on paper only, a practice that endured for a century after that.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson revived the speech approach, thus redefining the report as an event. Since then all presidents have followed suit, taking advantage of the opportunity through the expanding media to reach millions of Americans who listen on the radio, watch on television, or stream online. In late January or early February, both houses of Congress convene and receive the president, Cabinet, and the address. Presidents realize they can command a large audience and a few news cycles to follow. Carefully crafted speeches include statistics and sound bites that will help propel presidents’ initiatives.

Communications Staff

The expansion of the media has redefined the communications office’s role. In the days before television, presidents from Coolidge to Eisenhower held press conferences before a mix of print journalists and radio broadcasters. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt pioneered the radio message with his fireside chats, and John F. Kennedy did the first live televised press conferences in the early 1960s. The communication office works to control information coming out of the White House and try to shape the president’s message that will ultimately define his policy agenda and its success or failure. The White House press secretary is appointed by the president. The chief responsibility is to keep the White House press corps aware of important events in the president’s schedule and knowledgeable about presidential actions.

Spin and Manipulation

The press conference is in many ways a staged event. Press secretaries and presidents anticipate questions and rehearse in advance with planned answers. President George W. Bush’s critics complained that his press relations were an affront to the media. Reporter and media expert Eric Alterman and others reported how the Bush administration was caught manipulating the news process. The president’s administration distributed government-prepared “news reports” to local TV stations across the country to promote his programs, planted a fake reporter in the briefing room to throw softball questions at the president’s press secretary, and paid large sums of public money to writers to promote their programs. The most notable example was a payment of $240,000 that went to conservative columnist and radio host Armstrong Williams to promote Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiatives.

Modern Technology and a Social Media President

From advances in the printing press to the advent of Twitter, presidents have had to keep pace with technology. From Eisenhower to Clinton, the president could cut into the big three television networks with an announced speech. Now, with the exception of the State of the Union address, many public addresses are aired only by lesser-watched cable TV channels. The 24-hour news cycle is always hungry for headlines. The recent explosion of immediate electronic communication, social media use, push notifications, and the reliance on the Internet for information has transformed how the president communicates with the people to accomplish his policy agenda.

Obama Embraces New Media

On his way to the White House, President Obama forecasted his media presence when he hired a 30-year-old “new media director,” introduced a Twitter feed, and employed a videographer to upload segments on YouTube and, later, on WhiteHouse.gov. As president, Obama employed a 14-member staff on the new White House Office of Digital Strategy, a crew slightly larger than George W. Bush’s press secretary’s office. By his second term, President Obama had essentially created his own news service, digitally transmitting a stream of photo images, videos, blog posts, and interviews for social media sites for his fans and skeptics alike. Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Flickr quickly became standard platforms to broadcast his message.

The Obama Team’s Digital Strategy

The Obama team found this digital bully pulpit useful in a continuing effort to persuade the citizenry, who could then apply pressure on their representatives in Congress to accomplish the Obama agenda. During his two terms, the White House generated close to 300 infographics supplying people with quick and digestible data. The Obama team worked hard to successfully compress complex ideas and goals into Twitter bites. They found this strategy useful and easy to microtarget—that is, to target certain audiences with specific messages. In his quest for a health care law and amid the GOP’s efforts to stop it, the White House established a “Reality Check” website which debunked his opponents’ rumors about the drawbacks of the health care plan.

Image Control

Presidents for some decades have employed a taxpayer-funded photographer. Congress has allotted the money for this purpose for the good of the office, to create a record, and to connect people with government. Obama’s photographer, Pete Souza, and the new media team used photography as a way to legitimize his presidency, portray him as a man of the people, promote policy programs, and generally chronicle his presidency.

President Barack Obama fist-bumps Make-a-Wish child Diego Diaz after reading a letter he wrote, during his visit in the Oval Office, June 23, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The Role of Photography in Presidential Image

As photography has become affordable and common among media outlets, independent photojournalists want to show the presidency with their own original images and to tell the full story of the president, not the controlled story. Much like Teddy Roosevelt’s efforts of shaping his image with expensive photography more than a century ago, Obama’s publicly distributed photos were carefully curated to show the president in a particular light.

“Obama [took] unprecedented advantage of the digital revolution in photography,” says expert Cara Finnegan in an Illinois News Bureau interview. By the end of his administration, his Flickr feed had more than 6,500 quality and well-chosen images. Meanwhile, the White House took steps to prevent independent journalistic photographs, hoping that a greater share of White House-released photos would dominate news websites. The press corps’ response revealed a unique relationship between the president and the press. The president’s press secretary, Jay Carney, found himself bombarded with complaints.

“Our problem is access,” said correspondent Ann Compton. “You can put out a million pictures a day from the White House photographer, but you bar photos [from Air Force One]! Correspondent Brianna Kieler declared, “Anyone here can tell you, that there’s less access than under the Bush Administration.” Journalists were chafed because the practice resembled media strategies of dictators in countries with no free press and only state-approved images. Obama’s grand attempts to shape his image and get the citizenry to know him led the New York Times to call him “Obama the Omnipresent.”

Tweeter in Chief

Within his first year in office, President Trump became well known for the use of his Twitter feed to speak directly to the nation. Shortly before taking office, Trump tweeted, “I use Social Media not because I like to, but because it is the only way to fight a VERY dishonest and unfair press, now often referred to as Fake News Media. Phony and non-existent ‘sources’ are being used more often than ever. Many stories & reports a pure fiction!”

Trump has all but severed the presidency’s relationship with objective journalists and the mainstream media. Early in his tenure, Trump’s first press secretary shared misleading information about crowd sizes and photos from Trump’s inauguration. Daily press briefings were ended by the Trump administration in March 2019 after many contentious exchanges between the media and the president’s press secretaries, and Trump has refused to appear at the White House Correspondents Association annual gala.

All presidents have a somewhat adversarial relationship with the press, but Trump disparages journalists and refers to any mainstream media outlet criticism as “fake news.” He has broken established presidential communication norms repeatedly.