Presidents always seek new ways to speak directly to Americans. Over the past century, from an era when newspapers ruled the media, then to the heyday of radio and television and now through the internet and social media, they have employed the newest technologies to get their messages out as unfiltered as possible.
“It wasn’t until Theodore Roosevelt that presidents made it their purpose to communicate with the public in a very regular way,” says David Greenberg, a scholar on the history of presidential communications.
Roosevelt, who served from 1901 to 1909, brought newspaper reporters into the White House to lay out and promote his agenda. That set a standard that his successors built upon.
Presidents are best received by the public when they strike a balance between intimacy and authority, says historian Margaret O’Mara. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s radio broadcasts in the 1930s and 1940s made Americans feel like the president was speaking in their living rooms. These fireside chats, as they were called, reassured the country through the Great Depression and World War II.
“A president has two roles,” says Greenberg, “One is as a statesman who rallies the country. But the president is [also] a political leader arguing for a set of ideas and policies.” Some presidents relied on their oratorical skills to advance major policy decisions. John F. Kennedy’s American University commencement address in 1963 famously helped clear the way for the first nuclear test-ban treaty, for example.
Presidents also speak to the public through the press. That two-way relationship, Greenberg says, is often a contest between access and control of the message.
Though press conferences were first televised under Dwight Eisenhower, it was Kennedy who allowed them to be broadcast live from an auditorium that fit more than 200 reporters.
Once live broadcasts and on-the-record press briefings became the norm, presidents grew
more strategic. Richard Nixon created a White House Office of Communications in 1969 and held evening press conferences to reach the largest audience.
Employing the latest technologies
Americans were accustomed to seeing Ronald Reagan on their TV sets long before he became president in 1981. He was an actor and television pitchman before entering politics.
Bill Clinton’s administration launched the first White House website and began accepting email. But Clinton himself sent just two emails as president: one to troops overseas, and the other to Senator and original Apollo astronaut John Glenn on his return to space in 1998.
Barack Obama’s administration created the first presidential social media accounts. He gave credibility to digital media outlets by doing interviews with online publications such BuzzFeed and participating in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything forum.
President Trump has nearly 52 million Twitter followers and tweets frequently to communicate directly with Americans.
Ultimately, each president reaches out to the public in the medium that comes most naturally. Greenberg believes that, as Reagan was comfortable on television, Trump gravitates toward Twitter “because it fits his personality.”