Fireside Chat 2.0

Obama’s plans to adapt FDR’s model to address today’s economy.

President Barack Obama

In an effort to educate the public on the state of the economy and his plans for improving it, President Obama is considering a series of short televised addresses similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Press secretary Robert Gibbs has told the television networks that the administration may request more time than usual for a president. Gibbs did not provide a schedule but described the addresses as lasting about 10 minutes each.

You may think you’ve heard all this before. When Barack Obama became the first president to put his weekly radio address on YouTube, it was heralded as his version of FDR’s famous fireside chats. It was a sloppy comparison. FDR wasn’t the first president to use radio. (Here’s Hoover giving a fireside-chat-like address on unemployment.) And FDR did not speak weekly. (That was a Reagan invention.) Roosevelt spoke only 30 times in 12 years. But what made the addresses so powerful and popular was the connection the president created with the country as he explained his sweeping policies.

As Warren Buffett put it so pointedly last week, how a president communicates his policies can be as important as the policies themselves. Since winning the presidency, Obama has been trying to accurately describe the dire economic conditions, and his solutions for them, without sounding too grim or too optimistic. His first prime-time press conference and his address to Congress included passages specifically designed to educate the country, but mostly he has been trying to calibrate—in daily doses, speculating on whether stocks are now a good investment and offering gently bullish statements about the economy.

During the campaign, Obama used longer-than-commercial-length addresses to focus on his economic plans. Last week, an adviser suggested in an interview that this same straight-to-camera approach would beat back criticism from Buffett, Andy Grove, and others that Obama was distracted from the crucial issue of the economy.

Obama’s aides know that if they are to go forward with these short presidential addresses, they have to be doled out carefully. The president asked the networks for airtime on the weekend of Presidents Day in mid-February so that he could address the country after signing the stimulus bill but ultimately decided against the plan. Aides said he wanted to save the opportunity for a more crucial moment. Describing the network addresses, an administration aide compared them to the president’s town hall meetings, which Obama has asked his staff to schedule infrequently so that they still seem special enough to get coverage and add extra punch to the message. (Obama will hold town hall meetings in California on Wednesday.)

The Bush administration used FDR’s presidential addresses as a model for a series of Iraq speeches Bush gave updating the country on the progress of the war. “At the end of 2005, the Iraq message became much more of an ‘explanation’ exercise than a persuasion exercise, influenced by the fireside chat model,” says one senior Bush aide.

For Bush, the model was FDR’s war addresses. Obama will look at FDR’s remarks about the economy, which have passages he could lift wholesale. “In our efforts for recovery we have avoided on the one hand the theory that business should and must be taken over into an all-embracing government,” said Roosevelt in 1934. “We have avoided on the other hand the equally untenable theory that it is an interference with liberty to offer reasonable help when private enterprise is in need of help.” Or, if consumer confidence is as much of a hindrance to the economy as experts say, then the end of FDR’s first address seems apt: “More important than gold … is the confidence of the people. … You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. … We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

The negative formulation may not be Obama’s style. (The chant is “Yes, we can,” not “No, we can’t”.) But the message is almost eerily contemporary. A stampede of rumors and guesses? FDR could have been talking about cable TV.