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Obama Has Three Tasks Tonight

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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What should President Barack Obama try to achieve in his address on immigration tonight?

Political scientists will tell you that presidential addresses don’t matter as much as pundits think: specifically, presidents don't sway large numbers of the public or Congress with a speech, no matter how brilliant. About all they can do with voters is agenda management. A prime-time speech signals to the public that a president believes an issue is important. 

But that doesn’t mean Obama will be wasting his time or that he should phone it in. He may not be able to change many minds, but he still can do himself some good with three specific audiences.

The obvious one is Hispanics.  His message to them is simple: This is a big deal, and I’m acting because Republicans won’t. Granted, Obama won’t deliver everything that pro-immigration reform have lobbied for; he doesn’t have the authority to do that. Still, he should have an effect. Most people don't care enough about most issues to be influenced much  by a prime-time speech, but the constituency that is particularly concerned about the issue being addressed will tune in and really listen. Obama’s pitch tonight -- and the policies that go along with it, as well as the reaction from Republicans -- could determine whether Hispanic voters react to the immigration debate by aligning with the Democratic Party for the long term.

The second audience is hard-core Democrats. Their minds won't be changed. But the speech will be an opportunity for them to “educate” themselves, meaning they will learn arguments for party policies they already support. I suspect that giving rank-and-file voters further validation for the policies they back is important for continued party identification.

The third audience is the small group of elite opinion leaders who are largely sympathetic to Obama’s policy goals, but don't automatically dismiss Republican complaints of executive overreach. Or, to put it bluntly, he’s talking to Ezra Klein, and others like him. There are some persuadable people among elite independent or quasi-independent opinion leaders, and they’re willing to give the president a fair hearing. So to reach them, the answer is for Obama to wonk out: He can’t go too deep into obscure precedents and highfalutin learned arguments for why his executive action is both legal and within established norms (Hint: Ezra really likes charts!). 

As for everyone else, there’s nothing Obama can do to appease Republicans or change the minds of most people (who probably won’t be watching anyway). The tricky part is that his most effective message to Hispanics -- that the action he is taking is a big deal -- may not square easily with an effort to persuade pundits that this action is business as usual.

But that’s why White House speechwriters earn the big bucks; it’s hardly unusual for presidents to need to address multiple audiences simultaneously. No one ever said presidenting was easy.

  1. For more on this, see John Zaller’s "The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion."

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net