What Can Presidential Speeches Do? A Dialogue

by John Sides on September 9, 2011 · 22 comments

in Legislative Politics,Presidency,Public opinion

Q: So, Obama’s jobs speech was a barnburner.  Surely this will pull Obama’s approval ratings out of the doldrums, no?

A: Presidential speeches don’t really move the president’s job approval ratings.  See political scientist George Edwards’s book, On Deaf Ears, Table 2.2.

Q: Really?

A: Really.

Q: Okay, well, then surely the speech will make people support his jobs plan, right?

A: Presidential speeches don’t tend to persuade people on policy either.  Take the “Great Communicator,” Ronald Reagan.  In The Strategic President, George Edwards shows that Reagan could not move opinion on signature issues like aid to the contras.  And Reagan’s advocacy for increased defense spending was soon followed by a decrease in support for additional defense spending.  Public opinion on government spending often moves in the opposite direction as presidential preferences and government policy.

Q: So maybe one speech can’t make a difference, but surely a sustained campaign can.

A: Chances are, it won’t.  Even Reagan realized this.  In his own words:

Time and again, I would speak on television, to a joint session of Congress, or to other audiences about the problems in Central America, and I would hope that the outcome would be an outpouring of support from Americans… But the polls usually found that large numbers of Americans cared little or not at all about what happened in Central America…and, among those who did care, too few cared…to apply the kind of pressure I needed on Congress.

And you can also think about George W. Bush and the effort to reform Social Security.  Lots of the examples in Edwards’s book involve multiple speeches on the same topic.

Q: So forget public opinion then.  What’s really important is whether the speech helps get his policies passed.  So do speeches influence Congress?

A. The short answer: presidents don’t often succeed in persuading reluctant members of Congress to go along with their views.  Take Lyndon Johnson, supposedly a master manipulator of Congress.  Edwards shows that support in Congress for Johnson’s initiatives was not systematically higher than Kennedy’s or Carter’s.  For example, on crucial votes in the House, Johnson won the support of 68% of Democrats and 29% of Republicans.  Kennedy did better among Democrats (74%) and worse among Republicans (17%).  Carter did worse among Democrats (59%) but the same among Republicans (29%).

Q: So do presidential attempts at persuasion do anything?

A: What presidents can do, Edwards argues, is “facilitate” change in favorable environments.

Q: What does that mean?

A: Let’s work though an example from a different book, Who Leads Whom, by the political scientist Brandice Canes-Wrone.  But it’s going to get a little complicated.  Are you ready?

Q: Ready.

A: Canes-Wrone examined every nationally televised primetime presidential address between 1957 and 2000.  She excluded State of the Union Addresses to focus only on speeches that were at each president’s discretion.  She noted every appeal related to domestic policy and then scoured polling archives to see what the public thought about the president’s ideas.  She found 99 cases where there was a relevant polling question about that policy.

Q: That sounds time-consuming.

A: No doubt it was.  Here’s what she found: On average, presidents made appeals about policies that were already popular.  On average, 56 percent of the public supported the president’s policy.  Of course, presidents do at times advocate for policies that are less popular, but that’s more the exception than the rule.  So you can see how, as Edwards argues, presidents want to capitalize on a favorable environment.

Q: Great.  Does this apply to Obama’s jobs speech?

A: The polling data isn’t ironclad.  But there’s some evidence that more people support what Obama is proposing to do than oppose it.

Q: So back to this study.  Do these appeals actually get policies passed?

A: Canes-Wrone tries to answer that.  She looks at budgetary data, where it’s easy to determine what the president wanted—more spending, less spending, etc.—because presidents have to submit a budget.  Then she looked at what they got from Congress.  And she also knows from reading all the presidential speeches whether the president made a public appeal about a particular budget area.  So now she can figure out whether a presidential budget appeal affected how closely Congress’s budget bills corresponded to the president’s budget proposal.  There are 1,225 presidential proposals.  Presidents made public appeals on 79 of them.

Q: But wait.  Couldn’t it work the other way around?  Couldn’t the president decide to make a public appeal about something that he knew Congress already agreed with?

A: Canes-Wrone takes account of that in her statistical model.  I’ll spare you those details.  Here’s the bottom line.  A public appeal by a president is associated with an enacted appropriations that is 11-16 percentage points closer to the president’s proposal, relative to appropriations that did not receive an appeal.

Q: So the speeches mattered!

A: Yes, they did.  But one qualification: I’ve been discussing domestic budgetary items.  When the president makes an appeal about foreign budgetary items, the effects are much more muted—about 2 percentage points.

Q: But since Obama’s speech was about domestic policy, I’m still pretty excited.

A: As a social scientist, I am required to point out that Canes-Wrone’s study focuses on a particular type of policy—the budgetary and appropriations process.  Obama is not proposing something as part of the regular budgetary process but is asking for additional tax cuts and spending.  In other words, there’s always a question of whether a set of findings will generalize to any particular case, and especially to a somewhat different case.

Q: Enough.

A: And I’m also required to point out that because at least some of Obama’s proposals are already somewhat popular among the public and already have some support among Republicans, it’s not going to be easy to figure out whether the speech mattered, above and beyond those factors.  It’s hard to prove causation with a single case.


A: Okay, I’ll stop.  But let me point out one thing.  A lot of commentary about presidential rhetoric centers on the exact words that the president did or didn’t or should have used.  None of these studies proves anything about the content of rhetoric, merely its existence.  We really don’t have any evidence that how presidents frame issues actually affects public opinion or policy outcomes.

Q: Fair enough.  So what’s the ultimate takeaway?

A: First, the president’s ideas have at least some support already.  If they didn’t, he probably wouldn’t have given the speech.  Second, as the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein notes, the speech thus serves not so much to persuade lots of recalcitrant voters or members of Congress, but more to signal the President’s intention to push for these policies and, equally if not more important, to bargain about these policies.  In other words, the speech, whatever its tone, was not laying proposals that are set in stone.  Expect the speech simply to spawn additional debate and negotiation.

If the end result is a bill on the president’s desk, we’ll have an excellent example of how presidential leadership really works.  It’s not about magic words or eloquent moments.  As Edwards said, it’s about facilitating change.


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