Preaching to the choir also has value. Photographer: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images
Preaching to the choir also has value. Photographer: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

If presidential rhetoric doesn’t have the magical properties that some pundits ascribe to it, why do presidents give so many speeches?

Part of the reason is that it's expected of them, and has been for some time. The presidency is extremely vaguely defined in the Constitution. As a result, its functions have a lot to do with expectations and precedents. If President Barack Obama didn’t barnstorm for his ideas (as Woodrow Wilson did with even greater futility, but nevertheless setting a standard modern presidents have followed), he would be accused of failing to use a (supposedly) powerful instrument of persuasion. So presidents are sort of stuck with it.

But it’s not all negative. There are plenty of good reasons for presidents to speak out, and for observers to pay attention.

Educating Supporters: Presidents can’t really change the minds of opponents, and most people who don’t have any opinion about a second-term president are lousy targets for persuasion because they don’t pay much attention to politics. However, presidents can “educate” their supporters, at the mass and even elite levels, about what the party believes and how to talk about it. That even works within the administration; making clear what the president wants to happen can provide guidance to those who want to help him.

Signaling: Presidents don’t convince members of Congress by using some magic combination of words. Yet they can signal to Congress and to other potential bargaining partners (even within the administration) what their priorities are. And, equally important, what they don’t care about. Presidents take positions on dozens, perhaps hundreds, of policy issues. Which are they prepared to fight for -– and maybe to give up something to get? Listen to what they talk about for clues.

Representation: Representation is a process of making promises, governing with those promises in mind, and then going back to constituents and explaining governing decisions in light of those promises. Presidential speeches help fulfill the “explaining” part, while sometimes also making new promises. Those promises, by the way, aren't only about public policy choices; they also can be about how the politician intends to will act in office, including representation style. So the very fact of delivering presidential speeches, and their rhetoric and setting, may be important parts of keeping promises.

Marginal Effects: We know -- and I suspect presidents know this, too -- that presidents can’t do much to affect public opinion with even very high-profile speeches. Still, in most circumstances it's unlikely that a speech will do any harm, so even the possibility of very small effects might make them a reasonable use of presidential time. It’s worth noting, too, that we don’t know anything about the long-term effects of presidential speeches. It’s possible that an address can achieve some result down the road, even if it doesn't help the president who delivers it.

So presidential speeches don't get bills through Congress, raise approval levels or win midterm elections, but there very good reasons for presidents to keep speaking out .

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.