Obama Had to Give That Futile Speech
My instant reaction to Barack Obama's Sunday-night speech on the San Bernardino attack, Islamic State and terrorism:
In other words, I focused on the institutional aspects of presidential speeches. (For analysis of Obama's substance and style, see Slate’s Fred Kaplan, the Atlantic’s James Fallows and Vox’s Matt Yglesias.)
Most voters hear presidential addresses through partisan ears: Democrats will tend to agree with Obama, whatever he says, and Republicans will tend to disagree. Or they will only hear the parts they want to hear. Democrats will ignore statements they don't fully support, and Republicans won't hear a section they might partially agree with. Overall, presidential speech-making doesn't change government policy by swaying public opinion.
But this doesn't mean these addresses are unimportant. All politicians find themselves "having" to do things because they are "expected" to, but what "everyone expects" is especially important for the presidency because it is such a constitutionally vague position to begin with. That is: Since the Constitution doesn't say much about what presidents are supposed to do, all of us look to what their predecessors have done in similar situations. A leader risks criticism is he fails to meet those expectations.
In addition, the speeches narrow down what the president really cares about. This can be part of bargaining with Congress, with executive-branch departments and agencies, or with foreign allies and foes. But more than any particular words he used, the setting of the speech -- in the Oval Office during prime time on a Sunday night -- declared that his topic was important to him and to the nation.
What presidents say, and how they say it, is how most of us experience politics. This is inherently important, whether it leads to anything or not.
Social scientists have no way of measuring broad indirect effects, which might show up in a number of ways. Ronald Reagan's speeches, for example, did not make the nation more conservative during his presidency. But they may have inspired some people to get involved in politics as conservatives and taught them what it means to believe in their ideology.
So don't call Obama's speech a failure just because Congress won't jump to pass any of the measures he asked for or because there is no public opinion surge demanding such action. Politics just doesn’t work that way.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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