The Long, Hard Slog of Change

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.

Brendan Nyhan takes a look at support for Barack Obama’s healthcare plan following his big speech a couple of weeks ago and comes away unimpressed:

There was a small bounce in support for health care reform after the speech, but part of the effect dissipated. Meanwhile, estimated opposition to reform, which dipped in the wake of the speech, quickly rebounded toward previous levels and is now greater than it was before the speech.

….I’m emphasizing this point because there’s a misperception among journalists that the president can easily move public opinion. As we’ve seen again and again over the years, it’s simply not true, but the lack of followup by the press means that the lesson is never learned.

I agree on the narrow question here: a single speech by a president probably has very little impact except in the very short term.   But I’m not sure that’s the same thing as saying the presidents don’t have much effect on public opinion.  It’s obviously harder to measure presidential impact the more broadly you look at it, but my guess is that presidents can have a fair amount of impact if they pick one or two subjects and hit on them early and often.

This was one of my criticisms of Obama from the very beginning: his campaign was very good at inspiring people to vote for “change,” but that message was only good enough to win the election.  By November 4th, the only specific change in most people’s minds when they entered the voting booth was that they didn’t want four more years of George W. Bush.

Now, Job 1 in a campaign is to get elected.  And “change” is one of the two classic messages for any winning campaign.  (The other is “experience counts.”)  But there’s not much point in getting elected unless you can accomplish something once you’re in the Oval Office, and that requires a public that’s solidly behind your legislative program.  Unfortunately, that’s something Obama never really got, because he didn’t want to take the chance of muddying his message and risking the election.  Maybe that was the right decision, but the end result is that he doesn’t really have a lot of genuinely fervent public support (the kind of support that generates townhall protests in every state, lights up the congressional swithcboard like a Christmas tree, and makes politicians fear for their reelection) for his specific healthcare agenda.

It could be that there’s no way to square this circle.  I don’t know.  But I believe two things: (a) public opinion is the key to almost everything and (b) it’s hard for a president to move public opinion.  One lesson you can take from that is that presidents are stuck.  The other is that they should treat public opinion the way Eisenhower treated World War II and mount a long, hard campaign to win it from their earliest days on the campaign trail.  I choose door #2.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.