Monday 17 May 2010

The Power To Persuade

Did President Obama over estimate the power of persuasion? George C Edwards II, Professor of Political Science at Texas A & M University argued that Obama thought he would succeed in achieving his agenda by persuasion. Republican opponents and the public could be won over by presenting the arguments for his policies and decisions. Edwards sought to explain that this was an error.

Edwards has argued in the past that the traditional power of Presidents deriving their main source of power from the "bully pulpit" (unlike British Prime Ministers they have no powers to control the legislature) is mistaken. Instead successful Presidents recognise opportunities and employ the appropriate strategies to realise them. Obama's persuasion strategy was doomed to failure because
  • A growing proportion of the American public was identifying itself as "conservative". There has been a trend of falling support for larger government - and greater polarization against the Democrats in a band of States across the continent - from Mississippi & Louisiana; and west Virginia - to Idaho. These people were not going to be persuaded. They had strengthened their views and cut themselves off from other opinions. Apparently 63% of republicans say that Fox News is their SOLE source of news.

  • The first actions of the Obama presidency were to save the economy. This involved using "public money" and so offended and provoked the people Obama wanted to persuade. This had the knock on effect of narrowing the liklihood that they would support later actions in other areas.

  • Polarization increased in Congress. All out opposition to Democratic initiatives was a strategic decision made by the Republican leadership. The "Old Confederacy" increased its significance within the Republican caucuses (as Democrats made gains outside the South). Communications networks enabled conservative activists & supporters to pressure their Representatives and senators more effectively. Appeals to bipartisanship were doomed to failure.

When Obama won - it was not by persuading those who had voted against him - but by mobilising those already pre-disposed to support him.

If Edward's is correct - that has important implications for the future conduct of politics within the USA. I fear that his conclusions are correct - but the USA would be a stronger place if openness to argument and bipartisanship played a greater role.

Earlier books by George C Edwards III include -

The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership (2009).
The Oxford Handbook of the American Presidency (2009), co-editor.
The Polarized Presidency of George W. Bush (2007), co-editor.
Governing by Campaigning: The Politics of the Bush Presidency (2006; 2nd Ed 2007).
Presidential Politics (2005), editor.
Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America (2004).
New Challenges for the American Presidency (2004), co-editor.
On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit (2003).
Presidential Approval (1990).
At the Margins: Presidential Leadership of Congress (1989).
The Public Presidency (1983).
Presidential Influence in Congress (1980).

Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making, co-author. Textbook - now in 8th Edition(2009)