President Trump promised, during his campaign, that he would be “so presidential” that people would find it tiresome. He’d be so presidential, Trump said, that “you will be so bored. You’ll say, ‘Can’t he have a little more energy?'”
Nonetheless, many in the media have been skeptical. After all, a man who rises at dawn to tweet about both national policy and reality television ratings hardly seems like presidential material. Feuds with Arnold Schwarzenegger do not a president make. Since Trump’s inauguration, meanwhile, there’s been a lot of talk about whether the media is “normalizing” Trump and what the pros and cons of doing so might be.
But here’s the thing: Being president tends to make a man seem — there’s no other way to put this — presidential. Presidential addresses, the kind bathed in custom and tradition, shape how the public views the person who occupies the office. That may seem obvious. OK, it is obvious. But it has important implications for Trump’s ability to command respect and enact his agenda.
All presidents, no matter their party or margin of victory, become the focal point of a series of elaborate, precisely choreographed public rituals. So far, Trump has completed two major ones. Two weeks ago, he spoke to both chambers of Congress, along with approximately 48 million Americans. Though this was not officially a State of the Union address, it still had all the trappings of one. And only five weeks before that, Trump delivered his inaugural address.
To unravel the effects of these public performances, we administered a set of surveys relating to both his inaugural address and his speech to Congress. In both studies, we encouraged large internet panels to watch — or not watch — each event. The goal was to isolate just the effects of these speeches on people’s views toward Trump. If we had not taken pains to separate those who watched an address from those who didn’t, we would run the risk of attributing post-speech changes in attitudes toward Trump to the speeches, when in fact they might be caused by the standard Sturm und Drang of politics. (For a more detailed description of our methodology, please see the footnotes.1)
Before and after the events, we asked panelists a variety of questions. As we wanted to know if the mere participation in elaborate rituals would make Trump appear more presidential in the eyes of those who watched, we asked our panelists about Trump’s ability to command the respect of key political audiences, offer a coherent vision for the country and do his job. Panelists placed themselves on a seven-point Likert scale on each question, where seven meant they totally agreed with the favorable answer (from Trump’s point of view) or were completely confident in Trump’s ability to complete a specified task.
The chart below shows how both the inauguration and the congressional address affected respondents’ confidence in Trump’s abilities as president by showing how the gap in opinion between people who watched and people who didn’t changed in each survey round.
The second chart, below, shows how much people think different groups — Supreme Court judges, business leaders, congressional Republicans and Democrats, and so on — respect Trump. So, for example, the line labeled “foreign leaders” indicates that people encouraged to watch Trump’s inauguration reported higher confidence — 0.21 points higher on the Likert scale than those who did not watch, to be exact — that Trump would “command the respect of foreign leaders.”
As you can see, immediately after the inauguration, those who had been encouraged to watch said that they perceived Trump as more presidential — measured in a variety of ways — than they had previously. (The gaps in opinion between the two groups pre-inauguration weren’t significant.)2 Suddenly, panelists who had watched the inauguration were more likely to say that Trump would be able to bring the country together, work productively with Congress and act in the nation’s best interests. They also were likelier to think he enjoyed the respect of military leaders and would act in the best interest of the nation as a whole.
We saw even larger results after his congressional address. In the 12 hours after his speech concluded, those who’d been assigned to watch it were more likely to think Trump could work productively with Congress, improve economic growth and earn the respect of those who didn’t vote for him, along with that of foreign leaders and Republicans in Congress.
It appears that these effects also might also show up for issues. Watching his address to Congress made people more likely to agree with some of Trump’s policy positions. There’s a lot of skepticism about a president’s power to use the bully pulpit to change people’s minds, and the persuasion effects we found were not large, nor did they extend to every policy item. But those who watched his speech became significantly more likely to believe that Islamic State’s destruction should be the country’s No. 1 foreign-policy priority and that a wall should be constructed along the U.S.-Mexico border — two of Trump’s signature issues.
Did these effects last? Some did, but not all. One week after his inaugural, those who’d watched it were still more likely to view Trump as presidential, as measured by a variety of our questions. The power of the inaugural ritual was enough to overcome the impression generated by a first week that was widely viewed as chaotic. Yet not all effects remained. While those who’d watched his inaugural were still more likely to think that Trump was able to perform the duties and obligations of the office of the presidency, one week later, inaugural watchers were no longer more confident than non-watchers that Trump would act in the best interests of the nation as a whole.
We observed a similar story of mixed long-term results after Trump’s congressional address. While CNN’s Van Jones confidently proclaimed that Trump “became president of the United States” in that address, our respondents did not entirely agree. A week later, respondents were more confident that the president would command the respect of other leaders, in the U.S. and abroad, but they did not otherwise think he was more presidential.3 On matters of policy, however, the persuasive power of Trump’s address did not dissipate so rapidly. A week after the address, those who had watched were more likely to support repealing the Affordable Care Act, building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and centering American foreign policy around the destruction of Islamic State. Through the State of the Union ritual, Trump was able to overwhelm the other news of the week — including his accusation that his predecessor had ordered a wiretap on Trump Tower — and sway viewers to his side on crucial, extraordinarily divisive policy matters.
We are hardly the first scholars to evaluate the efficacy of public appeals on public support for policy issues. The existing literature, in the main, provides very little evidence that public appeals reliably alter the contents or salience of public opinion. Of course, ours is just one study that, on its own, hardly closes the debate. Much of the existing scholarship, however, relies on “observational data”– that is, data that does not precisely distinguish the effects of such appeals from other ongoing political phenomena. By contrast, ours is based on an experimental design and, perhaps not coincidentally, provides more compelling evidence that mere exposure to a presidential speech can change public opinion on a host of domestic and international issues. Moreover, we know of no research that explicitly investigates the benefits of ritual on a leader’s public standing. And on this score, our findings are startling. If only in the short term, the public comes to see Trump as presidential not because of any bold acts of unscripted leadership, but simply through his participation in ritual.