About two years into his only term in office, George H. W. Bush said in an interview that he was just beginning to understand the power of the spoken word of the President.
It took him two years to realize this – an this was back in the nineties.
In today’s world, the President can speak at any moment to the country via social media. And with our incoming President, Donald Trump, his channel of choice – Twitter – gives him the power to shake the world in that moment.
Consider Trump’s recent off-hand tweet about the cost of Boeing’s contract to build Airforce One.
The truth is that Boeing will ultimately build two airplanes, but its current contract is only $170 million. The finished planes will have missile defense systems, an onboard operating room, the ability to survive an EMP, and will effectively be able to serve as a war command centers in the sky. And they could cost as much as $3.73 billion over 12 years, including “operations and maintenance, such as aviation fuel, maintenance and pilot salaries.”
Trump’s tweet had an instant and substantial impact on the economy and global relations.
More troubling than the lack of the full facts in POETUS’s tweet was that a few days before his tweet, the CEO of Boeing publicly criticized Trump’s position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a threat to Boeing’s significant business with China. In what many saw as political retaliation, Trump’s tweet had the effect of driving down Boeing stock prices by $2 per share. And though it eventually recovered, the episode showed just how powerful the President’s words via Twitter can be.
The power to persuade has long been seen as the most consequential positive, proactive power of the President – in contrast to the negative power of the veto, which can only be used in response to Congress passing a bill. Traditionally, when taking to the “Bully Pulpit,” it was for a speech or a press conference, which included a fair amount of preparation and vetting of comments by the President’s staff. And while some Presidents, including Bill Clinton, were known for improvising at times, the presence of forethought was an important hallmark of the public words of the President. And given the realities of politics and, especially geopolitics, the measured use of the Bully Pulpit was a good thing.
But we now face the prospects of a President who tweets at all hours of the day and night. And while he may be putting more strategic thought into many of his tweets than people credit him for, he clearly “goes rogue” at times.
The question remains as to whether Donald Trump truly understands the power of the President’s words. He indicated in his 60-Minutes interview that he gets how powerful Twitter is for reaching millions of people at any moment, but has he had the same realization Bush, Sr. had two years into his term in office?
And given the “gunslinger” approach Trump uses with Twitter, can the nation afford him taking two years, or even two months, to figure it out?