“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus,” Martin Luther King Jr., once observed. According to Winston Churchill, “The difference between mere management and leadership is communication.”
President Joe Biden already has demonstrated his impressive leadership skills as a six-term U.S. Senator and two-term vice president. Becoming a molder of consensus will require highly effective communication — that is, it will require Mr. Biden, as president, to speak regularly and often to the whole nation to convince people of the rightness of the goals, domestic and international policies, proposed legislation, plans, and everything else his administration deems necessary to keep us safe, improve our lives, make progress toward economic and social justice for all people, and protect our planet.
He must speak to us regularly — and often — to inspire us, and to appeal to our better angels, as President Lincoln did in his first inaugural address.
Joe Biden’s press conferences during his first week as president-elect — in which he talked about setting up a coronavirus task force, among other matters — and those held since then to introduce his nominees for his cabinet, struck me as an excellent first step in keeping us informed and up-to-the-minute about his plans and actions.
How often should the president address the nation? No rules or guidelines exist in the Constitution or anywhere else.
Presidents since Calvin Coolidge have varied considerably in how often they held news conferences.
Although Coolidge became famous for his taciturnity, he gave an average of 72.9 press conferences per year — a higher average than any of the next 14 presidents. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s yearly average is virtually the same.
The lowest annual average is Ronald Reagan’s at 5.75.
Those figures appear in a chart posted online by the University of California-Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project, launched in 1999 to serve as an “authoritative, nonpartisan online source for presidential public documents.”
Of course, press conferences are not necessarily useful or informative. That became thumpingly obvious most recently from the daily press conferences of Donald Trump held after he could no longer ignore the toll the coronavirus was taking. The public learned very little of value from them, and heard much misinformation.
Eventually, those appearances served only as substitutes for Trump-style campaign rallies. We must hope that such behavior will remain an anomaly for as long as our republic exists.
Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, when he was still an Illinois state senator, demonstrated his ability to electrify audiences. But he kept his oratorical skills mostly hidden after he won election to the presidency in 2008. During his eight years in the White House, President Obama gave on average only 1.71 news conferences per month, or 20.5 per year.
I feel that he spoke to the nation publicly far too infrequently. The result was his failure to build on the tremendous grassroots support that had enabled him to secure the presidency, his failure to remind everyone of what he hoped to accomplish as the nation’s leader, his failure to remind us of all the things that still cried out to be done, and his failure to cast a spotlight on everything the Republicans in Congress were doing to thwart his agenda.
In my opinion, those failures were not only a grave disservice to the citizenry, but also undermined his presidency to an incalculably huge extent — most egregiously when Mitch McConnell blocked the confirmation hearings for his nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.
I believe that to an unknowable degree, President Obama’s deficiencies as communicator-in-chief made possible the ascension of his successor in the White House.
The nature of human beings makes necessary hearing repeatedly about what we must do to treat everybody fairly, and about the injustices that still exist. With a few notable exceptions, Roosevelt’s famous so-called fireside chats accomplished that, and much more. In addition to apprising his constituents about his programs and policies and plans — and, after we entered World War II, the situation on the battlefields — he quelled rumors, strived to ease people’s fears, and fostered optimism and hope.
His messages served not only to strengthen people’s resolve, but to strengthen our democracy.
I urge Joe Biden to do all he can to restore trust in government, begin to mend our deep divisions, and in every other possible way, strengthen our democracy by making his voice — and those of his surrogates — heard as often as possible in news conferences and speeches all around the country. Especially in light of the possibility that the Republicans in Congress may label his proposals “socialism,” and in other ways try to derail his agenda, his messages as our ever-present communicator-in-chief will be essential.
The survival of our democracy may depend on them.