Ronald Reagan was unsuccessful in convincing the public to support increased defense spending. He made repeated appeals to give support to the Nicaraguan Contras against the threat of Communism, but to no avail. His pollster Richard Wirthlin wrote the president a memo suggesting he stop pushing the policy because it was likely to lower his approval rating and only harden people against helping the Contras.
The relationship between presidents and the partisan feelings they provoke by pushing a policy has only grown more acute since Reagan's years. In our increasingly hyper-partisan era, presidential communication can actually diminish the chances that both parties can find common ground. Sometimes the best thing to know about the bully pulpit is when not to use it.
Each of these presidents — with the exception of Kennedy — also had a string of successful presidential campaigns. Still, they all — even Reagan — lamented at the end of their administrations that they wished they had been able to communicate better with the American people.
Barack Obama has been sounding this lament for several years. In interviews with Ron Suskind in 2010, Obama said, "The area in my presidency where I think my management and understanding of the presidency evolved most, and where I think we made the most mistakes, was less on the policy front and more on the communications front. . . . I think I was so consumed with the problems in front of me that I didn't step back and remember, 'What is the particular requirement of the president that no one else can do?' And what the president can do, that nobody else can do, is tell a story to the American people about where we are and where we are going . . . going forward as president, the symbols and gestures — what people are seeing coming out of this office — are at least as important as the policies we put forward."