Nearly all of the most-popular former U.S. presidents are considered masterful communicators—an essential skill that flows from two key personality traits: confidence and empathy, according to several PR pros and speechwriters.
“Politics is three things: Getting people to know you, to like you, and to trust you,” said Mike Kennerknecht, a PR manager at Tipping Point Public Relations in Rochester, NY. “As a result, communications skills for a candidate and an elected official are paramount.”
Although there isn’t a definitive list that ranks presidents by popularity, six names regularly appeared in recent polls on the topic: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington.
The 20th century presidents on the list—Reagan, Clinton, Kennedy, and Roosevelt—are known for their skillful communications, while Lincoln is considered a persuasive and emotive orator.
Media trainer Brad Phillips said it’s probably no coincidence that presidents listed as the most popular are regarded as terrific communicators.
“Lyndon Johnson, for example, influenced more domestic legislation—such as Medicare and civil rights—than most other presidents in the modern era,” explained Phillips, “but his blunt communication style didn’t play well with the American public, and he’s nowhere to be found on the ‘most popular’ lists.”
Kennerknecht, who served as chief of staff for New York State Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo for more than seven years, pointed to President Reagan’s memorable speeches and skillful handling interactions with the media.
Meanwhile, Clinton possessed an empathy that appealed to voters, according to Kennerknecht. “People have said that Clinton could recall the names and faces of people he had met many years prior,” he said.
Confidence + empathy = popularity
Clinton was also confident—and confidence goes a long way, according to Mike Long, a freelance speechwriter associated with Georgetown University.
“People want someone who appears confident, who appears empathetic, and who is likable,” Long said. “But everything flows from confidence.”
Clinton’s popularity stems, in large part, from this potent mix of confidence and empathy. It helped him overcome several sex scandals as well as a historic impeachment trial. Kennerknecht attributed some of Clinton’s perseverance to the public’s willingness to forgive personal indiscretions. He said Nixon serves as the counterexample.
“Nixon spent quite a bit of time trying to rebuild his reputation, but the public was not nearly as forgiving,” he explained.
President Nixon didn’t lack confidence, just like another unpopular president, George W. Bush. (In a recent Daily Beast/Newsweek poll, Bush was named the “worst” president). For Bush, many people came to view his smirking confidence as arrogance; he was seen as out of touch.
“Confidence needs to be backed up by empathy,” Long insisted. Clinton famously said, “I feel your pain”—an expression Bush should have adopted, according to Long.
Even though Long stressed the importance of confidence, he also warned that reducing the effectiveness of a communicator to one or two variables is a mistake.
“One [variable] can be overwhelmed by another,” he said, again citing Bush as an example of confidence outweighing empathy.
Will President Obama make the list?
Bush’s time as the presidential punching bag may come to end soon.
The perception of “Bush is likely to change,” said Kennerknecht. “It made be too soon for him, having been out of office for only four years. It takes time to establish a presidential legacy.”
As for President Obama, he is enjoying high approval ratings at the moment after seeing them dip below 50 percent shortly before his reelection. In fact, during the lead-up to the 2012 president election, the same Daily Beast/Newsweek poll that called Bush the worst president put Obama right behind him. Though a Gallup poll in 2011 ranked Obama among the 10 most popular commanders in chief.
“His communication skills are going to be an asset in establishing his legacy,” Kennerknecht said. “He has almost a full-term, so a lot can happen … but I think that his success at branding his campaign and himself are going to be an asset.”