The power of presidential oratory
People complain that Biden hasn’t been convincing about vaccines, global warming, infrastructure or public welfare. They are blaming the intransigence of Republicans and Senator Manchin on Biden as if a president can snap his fingers and make stuff happen. People used to say the same about Obama – he’s a great orator so it must be his fault that things aren’t going right. Somehow Lincoln’s First Inaugural didn’t stop the secession movement; so it must have been his fault. I was there on the Mall when Martin Luther King told us about his dream in unforgettably exciting language; so how come we are still dealing with white supremacists?
Come on, folks, let’s not absolve people of responsibility for their own failures by blaming it on someone else for failing to turn their heads. The Senate hypocrite-in-chief dares us to convince Senate Republicans and claims it’s our fault if we don’t, while they, of course, have no responsibility. Garbage.
I’ve read about how some people were able to convince white nationalists to abandon that cause. But most of those conversions were the result of one-on-one interactions; it’s not done from a public platform. The first step in such productive conversations is to gain people’s confidence and to convince them that we hear their arguments and understand their problems, not from our perspective but from theirs. But if a president did that in a public address, we would heap shame on him for appearing to take outrageous arguments seriously.
I don’t mean to say that nothing can be done, but I do mean to say that our expectations of what a president can do are outrageous. Some respond that Trump’s twits and talk made a huge difference. But he didn’t convince us; he infuriated us. We’ve spent years pulling apart his lies until it became obvious that his supporters weren’t listening and didn’t care.
We properly credit Lyndon Johnson with doing a lot for civil rights, but it wasn’t for the power of his speech. He had a large bi-partisan majority to draw on in both Houses of Congress which neither Obama nor Biden could claim, even if it did take some fancy maneuvering on Johnson’s part to bring that majority together. Plus he pressured King to keep the cause of civil rights on television so that Johnson could present civil rights legislation to a grateful nation. Ultimately it’s the people’s job to build the majority that makes progressive improvements to our country and the job of any well-meaning president possible.
The majority needs to be built at all levels because the election districts are shaped and voting machinery is run at lower levels of government; the ideas needed are developed from the bottom to the top of the political ladder; and the support that makes change possible is demonstrated throughout the political system. Politics is tug-a-war – all hands on the rope, doing what each of us can: voting, writing, driving friends to the polls, contributing what we can, carrying or putting signs up, marching, demonstrating, or just letting our representatives know when we see them. It’s a team sport.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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