Woodrow Wilson - Wilson as maker and leader of public opinion
This was the kind of president that Wilson was determined to be after his victory on 5 November 1912 over the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft; the Republican insurgent, or Progressive, Theodore Roosevelt; and the Socialist, Eugene Victor Debs. During the first days of his administration, Wilson moved quickly and decisively to establish himself as the chief maker, educator, and organizer of public opinion to support his domestic and foreign policies.
His first move—to hold regularly scheduled press conferences with the Washington press corps—was an innovation. Wilson appealed to the reporters assembled in the East Room of the White House for his first press conference, on 22 March 1913, to join him in partnership by interpreting the public opinion of the country to him. Wilson's intentions were, of course, to control the flow of information from the capital to the country and to use it to shape public opinion. And this he did successfully, on the whole. Wilson discontinued the regular press conferences in June 1915 because of increasing diplomatic responsibilities. He held only a few afterward—one in September 1916, a few in late 1916 and early 1917, and the final one on 10 July 1919.
Wilson also sought to educate and shape public opinion through state papers, addresses, and public statements. No president in American history has used these media with such remarkable power and success as Wilson did. He rivaled Jefferson and Lincoln in his mastery of the English language, but he used the spoken and printed word far more than they had done to shape the course of events. On the highest level of discourse—when he sought to end the war in Europe, to enunciate American war aims, or to plead for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles—Wilson claimed to speak not for himself but for the American people. In his annual message of 8 December 1914 he said:
I have tried to know what America is, what her people think, what they are, what they most cherish and hold dear. I hope that some of their finer passions are in my own heart—some of the great conceptions and desires which gave birth to this Government and which have made the voice of this people a voice of peace and hope and liberty among the peoples of the world, and that, in speaking my own thoughts, I shall, at least in part, speak theirs also.
However one judges Wilson's claim, it is beyond doubt that he used the "bully pulpit" of the White House to educate and shape public opinion with remarkable success. And because he invoked Judeo-Christian traditions and appealed to the minds and spirits of people, his rhetoric literally changed the course of history. For example, it is doubtful that any American, other than Wilson, could have so successfully united the people of the United States behind the great war effort of 1917–1918.