As Sean Gailmard explains in the video below, presidents have had available to them different forms of media through the decades, but they have always used it to communicate whatever will advance
their presidencies. There can be various audiences and the policies discussed can be different, but the goal is to send messages. Very typically, the first communications of a presidency are the
In February 1861, Abraham Lincoln was traveling to Washington, DC, to take the oath of office and begin his term. Several southern states had already seceded from the Union. Lincoln stopped in New
Jersey, a state that had supported his presidential bid, and made speeches in front of the New Jersey legislature. Most presidents and speakers at that time made very long speeches, intended for
the audiences in front of them. But Lincoln understood that, if he made his speeches brief, they would be printed in the next newspaper edition and gain a wider audience. Thus, the speeches to the
New Jersey legislature demonstrated his penchant or tendency to keep it brief and simple.
In March 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt began a series of what he called “fireside chats.” This referenced the fact that Americans at that time tended to gather around the popular new
telecommunication device known as the radio, which by the 1930s had found it way into most American homes. Previous presidents had hardly taken advantage of radio and usually only for speeches.
Roosevelt figured out that he needed to use the radio more like to entertainers of the day — to have a conversation with the American people. His first chat was dealing with the most pressing
issue, the banking crisis where hundreds of banks across the country were shut down to avoid a run meaning large numbers of people took money out of the bank all at once and bankrupted it. His
executive order closing the banks for a “holiday” saved the banks, but he had to then explain to the American people what was happening. He did this briefly and clearly in his first radio address.
The fireside chat was a great success and he made many dozens more in his presidency.
In January 1961, John F. Kennedy was elected president in the midst of the Cold War between the US and the Free World and the USSR (Russia) and the Communist World. Television was the media of the
day although Kennedy’s predecessors did not take advantage of it as much as the young, well-spoken, and good-looking Kennedy. Thus, Kennedy’s inaugural address is his first move in turning the
medium of television to his great advantage. Kennedy considered himself a foreign policy president and that the most pressing issue of the day was the struggle between the US and Russia. Thus, his
inaugural address was almost wholly about that struggle. Among the most famous inaugural addresses, it was brief at barely 15 minutes and it was televised around the world.
Today, newspapers, radio, and television are not as popular as in previous administrations. Whereas Kennedy could count on a 70 percent viewership for every televised address, current presidents
are lucky to get just a third of the public tuning in. President Obama had a mixed media strategy, using the three previous media of his predecessors and adding to them a series of social
networking venues on the internet. These include websites, Facebook, and Twitter. President Trump actually uses his Twitter account, both his private account and the official account of the
President of the US (POTUS), as a major media strategy. The POTUS Twitter page on the internet is actually interactive, asking voters to send questions and concerns, which the president’s staff
Abraham Lincoln, Address to the New Jersey General Assembly, February 21, 1861
Mr. Speaker and Gentlemen:
I have just enjoyed the honor of a reception by the other branch of this Legislature, and I return to you and them my thanks for the reception which the people of New-Jersey have given, through
their chosen representatives, to me, as the representative, for the time being, of the majesty of the people of the United States. I appropriate to myself very little of the demonstrations of
respect with which I have been greeted. I think little should be given to any man, but that it should be a manifestation of adherence to the Union and the Constitution. I understand myself to be
received here by the representatives of the people of New-Jersey, a majority of whom differ in opinion from those with whom I have acted. This manifestation is therefore to be regarded by me as
expressing their devotion to the Union, the Constitution and the liberties of the people. You, Mr. Speaker, have well said that this is a time when the bravest and wisest look with doubt and awe
upon the aspect presented by our national affairs. Under these circumstances, you will readily see why I should not speak in detail of the course I shall deem it best to pursue. It is proper that I
should avail myself of all the information and all the time at my command, in order that when the time arrives in which I must speak officially, I shall be able to take the ground which I deem the
best and safest, and from which I may have no occasion to swerve. I shall endeavor to take the ground I deem most just to the North, the East, the West, the South, and the whole country. I take it,
I hope, in good temper–certainly no malice toward any section. I shall do all that may be in my power to promote a peaceful settlement of all our difficulties. The man does not live who is more
devoted to peace than I am. None who would do more to preserve it. But it may be necessary to put the foot down firmly. And if I do my duty, and do right, you will sustain me, will you not?
Received, as I am, by the members of a Legislature the majority of whom do not agree with me in political sentiments, I trust that I may have their assistance in piloting the ship of State through
this voyage, surrounded by perils as it is; for, if it should suffer attack now, there will be no pilot ever needed for another voyage.
Gentlemen, I have already spoken longer than I intended, and must beg leave to stop here.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Fireside Chat On the Banking Crisis, March 12, 1933
John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
President Donald Trump, Twitter Page
Analyze the Evidence
How have four presidents used the media of their times to ensure the success of their presidency?
Instructions: Answer the questions using the sources.
Questions and Sources Chart
What is the most likely audience for his media? why would this media appeal to that audience given the circumstances of the time? Give one particular phrase or example from the source
that shows how the president is communicating.
Do you think that previous presidents, like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, had more persuasive advantages than presidents today because in those previous times there was one dominant media?