A handful of days before leaving office in early December, Mauricio Macri said there was something he did not like about his successor, Alberto Fernández. “Most of the things he says I don’t agree with,” the outgoing leader said, adding: “But there is also the fact that he talks too much, which is bad for a president.”
As with everything Macri would say or do, Fernández snubbed it, right away. “Macri is not in a position to give much advice,” said the Peronist leader. “The question is not whether one talks too little or too much, but whether one tells truth or lies.”
While there is nothing definite about good presidential communication – especially in this era of Twitter-guided presidencies like Donald Trump’s – one might be inclined to agree with Macri this time out. A president should craft his words carefully and use them with conscious moderation, knowing that any word that comes out of a head of state’s mouth is virtually seen as policy.
In his first four weeks as president of Argentina, Fernández is proving Macri right: he is indeed talking too much. He did as much after Congress passed, right before Christmas, his administration’s first piece of legislation, which gives the Executive sweeping authority to rule the country without much monitoring.
One can hardly blame the President for talking a lot – this is what he has done for most of his political life, first as Cabinet Chief under presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. But this happened especially after he left that job and became a bitter Peronist critic of the latter. Over the years he evolved into a shrewd political commentator more than into a political figure, only working behind the scenes on the candidacies of Sergio Massa (2015) and Florencio Randazzo (2017).
In the presidency, however, Fernández’s words have an entire new status and also a political goal. Despite the superpowers he has obtained from Congress, the president still has to build up his political authority, both within the Peronist coalition that brought him to office and with the union and business establishments that constitute the powers that be of Argentina’s economy.
This week, the president gave two lengthy radio interviews in which he used his public word to establish the political terrain for his leadership. If Fernández is to succeed, he will have to consolidate his own ground in the middle of the spectrum, a place that has been non-existent during more than a decade in Argentina. On New Year’s Eve Tuesday, Fernández chided business leaders for pushing up prices.
“It is as if we have to always have them at a whip’s length,” he said. Two days later, on 2020’s first working day on Thursday, the president flipped toward the other side of the coin and urged unions not to make “disproportionate wage demands which may impact the overall result of the economy.” He added, for good measure, that “we all have to be careful.”
The president believes he can build a centre by the sheer force of his word – and that eventually he will bring some of the country’s most prominent players to the centre as well. The chances of this strategy proving to be a success remain in question: after almost two years of recession nobody is voluntarily willing to concede anything, and the shortcomings of the economy are everywhere.
But beyond the content of the president’s words, the public methodology he has chosen is also a communication policy choice with multiple implications. His first public words this week were shorter than the interviews that followed but had concrete governing implications. “We stopped the increases [of fuel],” he told reporters, as he walked into the Casa Rosada early on Monday morning.
The line would have been almost anecdotal if the president had been referring to a private company trying to increase prices, but he was instead talking about the state-owned and state-managed YPF, whose Fernández appointed chairman Guillermo Nielsen had announced a five-percent hike on Sunday afternoon. “We” in this case, perhaps deserved a more reflexive version, something like ‘We stopped our own [fuel] increase.’
Running a multi-faceted and multi-factional group of Peronists in his administration and his ruling coalition, Fernández will have to use his public words as internal communications too. Ministers and other officials are likely to learn from him directly – but via the media – what the general direction of the administration is.
Macri was right: Fernández speaks too much – but rather than being good or bad, this may be simply dangerous.