Presidential Persuasion

Anyone who’s familiar with my posting history here knows that I’m skeptical of the President’s ability to move public speeches. Usually this skepticism is displayed in response to people who criticize the President on the grounds that he’s not rhetorically aggressive enough when dealing with the opposition in Congress.

My skepticism is based on two books: Stealth Democracy, which details the degree to which Americans are actively hostile to being exposed to the nuts and bolts of the policy-making process, and The Strategic President, which shows that the President doesn’t actually have the power to move public opinion but rather finds success when he takes advantage of naturally-occurring shifts (which often occur in response to some exogenous circumstances).

Now, add to the list this Ezra Klein article in the New Yorker, which offers a pretty good survey of the poli-sci research indicating that Presidential speech making doesn’t just not work, but is actually counter-productive. The article is, in many ways, just a survey of the concepts that George Edwards explores in The Strategic President, but for those who aren’t familiar with Edwards’ research, it’s a very good resource.

The article also points out another dynamic I’ve noted: in the past two decades are governing system has shifted toward a Parliamentary model. Congress no longer functions like it did during the postwar years; we now have very well disciplined political parties that are pretty relentless about pursuing their interest. This further gums up the workings of our government. To support this point, Ezra cites the work of Juan Linz, which I’ve previously posted about.

Anyway, there’s nothing really new here, but the article does provide a really good primer toward my view of the dynamics that govern our political system. It’s also a lot more accessible than a bunch of dry poli-sci type stuff, for those of you who lack the patience for wading through it.

I’ve read some stuff indicating that Presidential speeches can help in dealing with personal scandals and things very directly involving the President as a person (he wasn’t President yet, but Obama speaking about Jeremiah Wright would be a prime example), and they can be effective for getting the country to think about some new concept. They just don’t do much for moving pre-existing opinion on policy issues.