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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how technological innovations have empowered presidents
  • Identify ways in which presidents appeal to the public for approval
  • Explain how the role of first ladies changed over the course of the twentieth century

With the advent of motion picture newsreels and voice recordings in the 1920s, presidents began to broadcast their message to the general public. Franklin Roosevelt, while not the first president to use the radio, adopted this technology to great effect. Over time, as radio gave way to newer and more powerful technologies like television, the Internet, and social media, other presidents have been able magnify their voices to an even-larger degree. Presidents now have far more tools at their disposal to shape public opinion and build support for policies. However, the choice to “go public” does not always lead to political success; it is difficult to convert popularity in public opinion polls into political power. Moreover, the modern era of information and social media empowers opponents at the same time that it provides opportunities for presidents.

The shaping of the modern presidency

From the days of the early republic through the end of the nineteenth century, presidents were limited in the ways they could reach the public to convey their perspective and shape policy. Inaugural addresses and messages to Congress, while circulated in newspapers, proved clumsy devices to attract support, even when a president used plain, blunt language. Some presidents undertook tours of the nation, notably George Washington and Rutherford B. Hayes. Others promoted good relationships with newspaper editors and reporters, sometimes going so far as to sanction a pro-administration newspaper. One president, Ulysses S. Grant, cultivated political cartoonist Thomas Nast to present the president’s perspective in the pages of the magazine Harper’s Weekly .

Wendy Wick Reaves. 1987. “Thomas Nast and the President,” American Art Journal 19, No. 1: 61–71.
Abraham Lincoln experimented with public meetings recorded by newspaper reporters and public letters that would appear in the press, sometimes after being read at public gatherings ( [link] ). Most presidents gave speeches, although few proved to have much immediate impact, including Lincoln’s memorable Gettysburg Address.

Image A is a photo of Abraham Lincoln meeting with Union Soldiers. Image B is a cartoon of Ulysses S. Grant being shielded from arrows by “Lady Liberty.”
While President Abraham Lincoln was not the first president to be photographed, he was the first to use the relatively new power of photography to enhance his power as president and commander-in-chief. Here, Lincoln poses with Union soldiers (a) during his visit to Antietam, Maryland, on October 3, 1862. President Ulysses S. Grant cultivated a relationship with popular cartoonist Thomas Nast, who often depicted the president in the company of “Lady Liberty” (b) in addition to relentlessly attacking his opponent Horace Greeley .

Rather, most presidents exercised the power of patronage (or appointing people who are loyal and help them out politically) and private deal-making to get what they wanted at a time when Congress usually held the upper hand in such transactions. But even that presidential power began to decline with the emergence of civil service reform in the later nineteenth century, which led to most government officials being hired on their merit instead of through patronage. Only when it came to diplomacy and war were presidents able to exercise authority on their own, and even then, institutional as well as political restraints limited their independence of action.

Questions & Answers

what is government
Seth Reply
why is today's government so corrupt?
Julius Reply
what type of government does American practice?
Joshua Reply
what type of government does American practice
Joshua
Representative Democracy
Digital
what is communalism
Yarhere Reply
suppression of the people and their rights.
Julius
Help me understand this please. Looks ok please 🙏 🙏 please
debbie Reply
which political party has had the most sucess
Damion Reply
In what ways can the media change the way a citizen thinks about government?
Justin Reply
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Cowboy
Which of the following is not an agent of political socialization?
Vanessa Reply
What is government
AHMED Reply
how is the legislative work ?
Abdurahim Reply
law making
Cowboy
When acting as an agenda setter, the media
Brooke Reply
How do you know the answer to a question?
Nikaela Reply
which was not a third party challenger
Jonna Reply
the system of government in the United States is best described as?
Gabrielle Reply
a government for the people by the people
Jimmy
Which of the following was not a third-party challenger? a. Whig Party b. Progressive Party c. Dixiecrats d. Green Party
sonu Reply

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Source:  OpenStax, American government. OpenStax CNX. Dec 05, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11995/1.15
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