My new book project, States of the Union, 1789-2022: A Concise Political History of the US based on presidential addresses, has now reached Richard Nixon. Joe Biden, I think it is fair to say, has had remarkably little impact on American politics and American opinion in his first fourteen months in August. I believe I have stumbled upon a big reason why.
Radio became a mass medium early in the 1920s, and it became a key to Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. Several times a year, his fireside chats focused the nation on its greatest problems and upon himself. They had particular effect because Roosevelt excelled at putting the news of the week in a long-term perspective--until 1940, his attack on the depression and attempts to remake American society, and after that year, the course of the Second World War. Television began to supplant radio in the late 1940s and Presidents Truman and Eisenhower made a number of important broadcast addresses both on economic questions and on foreign policy. Kennedy followed the same pattern, including dramatic addresses on the Cuban missile crisis, civil rights, and the conclusion of the Test Ban Treaty. Johnson spoke much less frequently to the American people, and the first broadcast he ever made devoted entirely to Vietnam was the March 31, 1968 one in which he dropped out of the presidential race.
It has become harder and harder to remember much about Nixon beyond the scandals that brought him down, but I have discovered that he was, in his own way, the Franklin Roosevelt of the television era. During the first four pre-Watergate years of his presidency he made a dozen major broadcast addresses in addition to three state of the union addresses. The majority of them traced the course of the Vietnam War, including his carefully staged troop withdrawals, his peace offers to the North Vietnamese, his escalations of the war in 1970 and 1972, and finally the 1973 peace agreement. But others dealt with domestic issues, including inflation and economic growth and school busing. However one evaluates his policies and the degree of their success, he kept the American people very well-informed about what he thought and where he was going. After 1973 the broadcasts focused increasingly on Watergate, although he also made a very detailed address on the energy crisis later in that year. I have not yet gone through the presidential addresses of the last half century, but I have the distinct feeling that the only subsequent president who even tried to match Nixon's record as a communicator was Ronald Reagan.
And this is the area in which Joe Biden has fallen so lamentably short. He came to office in the midst of one crisis, the pandemic, and now faces two others, the inflationary surge and the war in Ukraine. He has never gone before the American people in prime time to discuss either one. He gave what amounted to a state of the union address a couple of months after taking office, and he gave an official one last month. Beyond that he has relied on sound bites. Yes, the era of three television networks ended long ago, but they surely would still provide the time for a major presidential address, as would the cable news networks. After a lifetime of behind-the-scenes legislating, however, Biden apparently has no ambition to define his presidency through extended, face-to-face talks to his constituents.
Donald Trump, of course, did maintain a continuous relationship to the voters via Twitter. One could argue that he used the new medium the way FDR used radio and his successors learned to use television. Twitter, of course, does not lend itself to sustained, detailed discussion of issues--something of which Trump was not capable anyway--and Trump's use of it was not good for America. Yet it did allow him to build up a devoted personal following that no president since Reagan, surely, has managed to match. All our elites are now spoiled, confident, apparently, that the public will put up with whatever they do. The political elite doesn't seem to see much need to explain itself. The restoration of continual, detailed communication between the president of the people, it seems to me, is essential to the restoration of effective democracy.