Obama’s Speech: Did It Even Matter?


We overeducated types frequently complain that the press spends too much time on horse race political analysis of the president when, really, the only thing that matters is economic conditions. Economy good = popular president. Economy bad = big losses for the party in power. End of story.

And this is, roughly speaking, true. But it’s possible to take this political-science-inspired view of the presidency too far, and I think Matt Yglesias does this on another subject today:

The most important thing to keep in mind about the sort of “major” presidential speech we saw last night is that they don’t matter. At all. They don’t move votes in Congress. They don’t move public opinion. The bully pulpit method of governance doesn’t work. And that’s about the best I can say about Obama’s speech — even if it had been much better, it wouldn’t have done much good.

This is tantamount to saying that presidents shouldn’t bother communicating to the public at all. But does anyone really believe this? Even the political scientists whose research suggests that presidential speeches don’t move the public opinion dial much? I doubt it. A single speech may not have much effect, but let’s face it: a single anything doesn’t have much effect. Last night’s speech was part of a much broader communications strategy from the president, and that broader strategy does make a difference in the long run. Obama had a chance to move the dial a little bit, to shift the topic of elite conversation, and to send a clear signal about what he supports and what he doesn’t. Those are useful things, and he should have done a better job with them. 

In a similar vein, political scientist Brendan Nyhan tweeted an old post of his last night:

Over the last few years, I’ve frequently cited political science research showing that presidential speeches usually fail to change public opinion on domestic policy issues….What’s so striking is that reporters and politicos alike still don’t understand this point. Why?

I wish reporters knew more about this stuff too, but is it really fair to blame them in this case? Obama could have made the oil spill the subject of his regular Saturday radio speech. He could have held a press conference. He could have given a speech in Baton Rouge. But he didn’t. He announced his first ever prime time Oval Office address. Of course everyone expected something a little dramatic. A bold new approach to cleaning up the spill. A call to action of some kind. Something. Instead we got a humdrum update that sounded like something a junior project manager might reel off at a weekly status meeting.

The Senate isn’t going to pass a big climate change bill this year. I get that. But it would still be nice to hear Obama at least make the case for one. Not everything has to be lawyered to death in the White House. Sometimes you should speak your mind even if you know Congress isn’t likely to listen. That’s what Obama should have done.