Presidential Public Punishment as Persuasion Play

SOTU 2010w

During President Obama’s first State of the Union address, he specifically singled out the Supreme Court for public punishment for their recent decision that struck down a campaign financing law.  Here’s the NYT description.

While he was in a scolding mood, the president did not spare the Supreme Court, which is usually part of the pageantry of the State of the Union but not part of the substance.

With Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and other members of the court seated in front, Mr. Obama, a constitutional lawyer, scolded the court for last week reversing “a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.”

Chief Justice Roberts’s expression did not change, but, as Democratic Senate leaders stood behind him and applauded, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. scowled noticeably and shook his head.

It was a remarkable moment to many. “I have never seen the president go after the Supreme Court,” said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and a 35-year veteran of Congress.

While I consider myself a Persuasion Wizard, I must adopt a humble stance here in the face of a Greater Master, Mr. Obama.  I cannot fathom the persuasion strategy behind this rare, public punishment of the leading members of an entire Branch of Government.  Given the context of Mr. Obama’s play, it is apparent that it was volitional, planned, and highly valued.  A State of the Union address is a monster communication event that attracts Super Bowl-like attention.  He dropped all that on the Supreme Court right in their faces while the world watched.

I wish I knew what Obama seeks to change with the Supreme Court because his comments can only be understood as a direct influence attempt.  My experience as a researcher and just as a plain old human being advises that public punishment like this is an extremely serious play that both delivers and initiates consequences that do not go away immediately.

As Senator Tom Harkin commented, he’s never seen anything like this in 35 years of Senate experience watching these speeches.  Mr. Obama is held in some circles to be a master orator and the leader of Persuasion Central.  What’s the genius behind this rare persuasion play?

Consider the possibility that Mr. Obama is a persuasion novice – and given the failure of his efforts at health care reform with super majorities in the Congress, that is not a crazed hypothesis.  Consider, too, the impact of his persuasion at gaining the Olympics for Chicago, and for climate change policy at the United Nations, and helping Mrs. Coakley gain the Massachusetts Senate seat, and the GatesGate beer summit with Professor Gates, and on and on.  Hey, he’s picking the New Orleans Saints for the Super Bowl; I’d be afraid for the Big Easy.

If so, remember the Rules.

All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.

You Can Get Farther with a Kind Word and a Gun than with Either Alone.

It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid.

Persuasion Is Strategic or It Is Not.

And, finally.

Power corrupts persuasion.