In Presidential Speeches, Words Do Matter

Kathleen Hall Jamieson speaking at the East-West Center
Kathleen Hall Jamieson taking questions from the audience

HONOLULU (Jan. 20, 2011) -- With President Obama's recent speech following the Tucson shootings receiving wide acclaim and his State of the Union address to a newly divided Congress looming next week, political media expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson told an audience at the East-West Center Tuesday that the rhetoric used by presidents and presidential candidates is significant both in what it can reveal and what it can conceal.
"Rhetoric matters," said Jamieson, noting that as a candidate Obama's legislative accomplishments weren't extensive, but his capacity to frame issues and speak effectively helped get him elected. "Indeed, the rhetoric of the candidate credentialed him to be President of the United States."

Jamieson, who spoke as the EWC's current George Chaplin Fellow in Distinguished Journalism, directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which among other projects runs, a nonpartisan organization that researches the veracity of political claims and bills itself as a "consumer advocate" for voters. As a professor of communications, Jamieson's research centers on political media, including studies of campaign communications and the discourse of the U.S. presidency, and she herself is a frequent news commentator.

Jamieson said she believes Obama became the Democratic Party's presidential nominee largely on the strength of three well-documented speeches – his 2002 address against the Iraq War, his 2004 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention and a 2008 speech on race that helped his candidacy recover from a controversy about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The convention keynote was significant because it offered a glimpse of how Obama could bring the country together in times of crisis, she said. In the address, then Senator Obama talked about there being a single United States, not one divided by liberal and conservative lines.

"One thing I knew when I heard that speech was that a candidate who has the opportunity in a keynote to attack the other side, to create divisions, had found a rhetoric of incorporation that offered powerful illustrations of what unites a country," Jamieson said.

Jamieson noted that Ronald Reagan had a similar capacity, but that not all politicians possess this ability. On the other hand, she said, presidents who are skilled at connecting with audiences emotionally are not necessarily good at laying out persuasive arguments for their policies – something that she said has been a problem for Obama.

Jamieson said presidents are called upon to deliver many forms of rhetoric, both as a candidate and once they are elected. But "presidential rhetoric doesn't always translate into delivered promises," she said, using the example of President George H.W. Bush's famous "Read my lips: no new taxes" promise that he later broke in an effort to control a growing deficit, and that came back to haunt him when he lost his bid for a second term to Bill Clinton.

She said categorical promises made by candidates tend to create constraints on their capacity to govern after they are elected. "It would be better if we campaigned with more qualifications to our statements, with more nuance," Jamieson noted. "But politicians think it's difficult to get elected that way, and as a result they tend to be too categorical."

Presidents and candidates can also make comments that can be interpreted by the press in a way that wounds them. Jamieson cited former President Gerald Ford's comments on Soviet Union influence in Eastern Europe during a 1976 presidential debate that were widely perceived in the press as a gaffe when she believes the opposite was true.

"Part of the equation of interpreting presidential candidates' discourse is always asking, 'how does the press frame it,' and as a result, how does the public come to see and interpret it,'" she said, explaining that Ford was slow to react to the media interpretation, perhaps costing him the election.

There's also a message when candidates and presidents aren't specific. Obama, for example, said small businesses wouldn't pay more under healthcare reform legislation but steadfastly declined to define what a small business was.

"In an environment where the tendency is to be categorical, a carefully worded statement is probably telling you that categorical isn't actually going to hold in governance," said Jamieson. "There are statements whose absence of definition is itself highly revealing."

And then there are critical times when the president is called upon to frame issues for the nation as a whole, Jamieson said, citing Obama's speech in Tucson as an example. "He had the capacity to deliver the kind of rhetoric that would say even to Republicans who voted against him, who opposed his policies, that he could speak for them, because he was speaking for the nation," she said.


The EAST-WEST CENTER promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center