“Presidential Power” was a classic book published in 1960 by then Columbia professor Richard Neustadt. Neustadt defined presidential power as the “power to persuade,” and President Obama demonstrated this decisively when he asked and was invited to speak at Barnard’s graduation, bumping New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who graciously agreed to speak at a future date. In the same spirit, we should look forward to the day when the first woman president of the United States exerts the same power in ousting an important male public figure at a university commencement somewhere.
The White House contacted Barnard in early March at the start of an escalating debate over whether health insurance provided by institutions run by religious organizations should be required to cover contraception. This issue and the use and availability of contraceptives became a heated topic among Republican candidates in their presidential campaigns and among party leaders and pundits more broadly, with the Democrats looking to capitalize on this issue in the upcoming battle in November for the support of women voters. No doubt the White House had this in mind at the time in asking to speak at one of the world’s leading women’s colleges, where President Obama could use the occasion to emphasize women’s rights, the difficulties women still face, and the important leadership role of the next generation of women at Barnard and in the nation. As I wrote this, Rick Santorum stopped his campaign, and the latest polls showed President Obama benefitting from potentially a larger than usual gender gap against Mitt Romney, which he will try to capitalize on further. And through the media’s national coverage of his Barnard commencement speech, Obama could attempt to appeal to young adults more broadly, whose support was important in 2008 and which he will need again. He could also continue to press his current campaign theme of economic inequality or any new one that he wants to try out. I say “could,” because we do not know for sure what Obama will say, though any appearance at a women’s college symbolizes an appeal to gender, equality, and age, as he gives his own high-minded motivational speech to the graduates and their families.
But what else could Obama say? How about discussing a national issue for which he wants to mobilize public support? Neustadt’s “power to persuade” is visibly relevant for presidents when it comes to their relationships to the public and voters in particular, and it’s long been a hot topic for political scientists, including me, who study the “public presidency,” as presidents “go public” or even “go local” in attempting to lead—or manipulate—public opinion. What we know from this research is that changing public opinion toward a particular issue or policy solution is difficult (e.g., health care reform) and occurs rarely, unless the public is already favorably predisposed. Or unless the president raises an issue or proposal that is not currently salient—it has not been discussed in the media—and that will not be immediately engulfed in current partisan conflict that squashes everything. Doing this would turn the graduation address into a “major” speech that would be amplified by the press and the reactions of other leaders and pundits, and that could in turn mobilize public support. Or rather than being a one-hit wonder, the speech could be the start of a sustained leadership effort which could keep the issue or proposal visible and increase support for it.
Obama himself has lamented the difficulty presidents have in “breaking through the noise and speaking directly to the American people.” The Barnard speech, occurring in New York’s major media center, is an o pportunity to break through the noise. He would honor Barnard—and Columbia and its surrounding community—if he rose to the occasion like Secretary of State George C. Marshall did in his “Marshall Plan” speech in June 1947 to the “gentlemen” of Harvard University. Even if what Obama says can’t crash through the barrier of partisan conflict—and granted, this may be a near impossible task—I hope he will give it the good old Barnard and Columbia try. If not, we can wait and see what that first woman president does at commencement time.
The author is a professor in the department of political science.