Do Presidential Speeches Matter?


Written by Robert Neufville, a Big Think blogger

Last Thursday, President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress, proposing a new $450 billion bill designed to create jobs. With unemployment still over 9%, Obama’s reelection chances may hinge on his doing everything in his power to get people back to work, or at least looking like he is. So the message of Obama’s speech — repeated again and again — was clear: “Pass this jobs plan right away.”

But will Obama’s speech make any difference? Supposedly one of the President’s greatest powers is the power to use what Teddy Roosevelt called the “bully pulpit” and speak directly to the public. While reactions to the content of the proposed jobs bill was mixed — Andrew Sullivan has a great collection of the reactions here — even conservatives like former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson admitted it was an effective speech. But as Ezra Klein says, “All the president can do is ask Congress to pass his bill. The only direct leverage he has is his ability to make his ideas popular and their refusal unpopular.”

Can it even do that? As John Sides says, the evidence is that presidential speeches do little to make either the president or the president’s policies more popular. Brendan Nyhan points out that even President Reagan, who was known as the Great Communicator, complained of his inability to sway public opinion. Obama, of course, wouldn’t have given the speech if he didn’t think it would help him. Sides explains that presidents generally make appeals for policies that which are likely to be well-received, as many of the proposals in Obama’s speech seem to be. Obama never would have given the speech, in other words, if he didn’t think that his proposals were likely to be popular in the first place.

While the speech is unlikely to do much to change public opinion, as Sides says there is some evidence that presidential speeches increase the pressure on members of Congress. In her book Who Leads Whom?, political scientist Brandice Canes-Wrone found that presidential speeches were able to substantially influence domestic budgetary appropriations. Passing a new jobs bill is a harder legislative task than affecting the annual budget bill, and Obama’s proposed American Jobs Act may never get through Congress. Obama’s speech is unlikely to to really transform the political landscape. But Obama knows that anything can do to increase the pressure on Republican members of Congress is likely help his chances in 2012.

This post was originally published by Big Think.


Related Stories:

GOP On Obama Plan: “Don’t Hand Him A Win”

Cantor: We Only Have To Pass The Parts We Like

President Obama Goes Big On Jobs, But Will Congress Deliver?


Photo from Matt Ortega via flickr creative commons


Charles G.
Wilde Thange6 years ago

It makes no difference there will be too much spent on war and the real all party agenda is to dismantle govt programs and privatize our govt into non-existence except for the multi-national corporate rule without borders and the faith based socially dogma drenched programs for non professional assistance and political partonage payments unless you can pay for the real thing... and the military police state to protect the rich and famous in the coming global environmental chaos ahead... the banana republic world.

Walter G.
Walter G6 years ago

To continue my diatribe, In my living room here on Gilligan's island, I had the only TV on the street at the time, and my place was packed with military retirees to watch Bill lie. 'Slick Willie' didn't disappoint us, he had a little drink of water, oscillated his Teflon tongue, and facing the camera, scowling seriously us all straight into the lens, he Emphatically delivered. "I did not have sex with that woman!" "Ze talking about Jessica or Hillary?" asked one neighbor. "Don' much matter, jes turn what he said around 180 degrees and you have a better picture." came the answer. "Whaddaya think Hillary'll do to him?" there came a reply from one of my open living room windows, "I think tomorrow morning," (the following is appropriately censored) "something X rated will be hanging from the White House flag pole, and his next speech will be given in a noticeably higher tone of voice."

Vernon W.
Vernon W6 years ago

Obama's speeches are only rhetoric since the GOP will not pass any program that will be considered a success for Obama. That should have been clear to Obama in the first 2 months of his term but he was too naive and stupid. He thought the GOP would actually pass programs to help the country out of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression that the rich Conservatives created. Boy, has he been wrong! Even all the Goldman Sachs cronies he has hired into his staff cannot convince the GOP. All the "compromises" he has made has not helped since he is the only one who compromises. Obama has created the term "leading from behind," hardly qualification to be President of the US. He also squandered the sizable majority in both houses of Congress that the voters gave him in 2008 but he actually thought the Repugs would feel more responsible if they controlled the House. He has done nothing to convince the voters that his or the Democratic policies are better for the nation. Unfortunately, no other Democrat has stepped forward to provide leadership. He helped throw under the bus the only Democrat who made any noise and whose House seat has just been won by a Repug. Maybe the only way this nation will wake up is to elect Rick Perry to make clear how destructive the GOP policies are.

Walter G.
Walter G6 years ago

The President ascended to the high office he occupies by being a politician. Politicians speak to gatherings, organizations, or flocks of seagulls to tell all and sundry what they want the audience to believe. They do not inform us as many think, in fact they would not insult our intelligence by revealing the truth. That comes 50 years later out of a sealed desk drawer, heavily redacted, or from witnesses, who, if they are politicians . . . !
Do presidential speeches matter? This is a variable question. If you are part of the President's family, or unusually gullible, have recently under gone a sort of logic transformation or a 'mind meld' by Mr Spock. Possibly dick Chaney may have appeared to you in a recent nightmare with a bottle of booze in one hand and a shotgun in the other ordering you to believe Pres. Bush. If you missed the nightmare, you may occasionally be treated to 'our dick' usually on Faux News, sans shotgun and with booze already aboard. The President is a politician, and as such is charged to continue to lie like a rug, which got him into the white house, forever and ever, even in his Alzheimer's laced memoirs, if possible. Proof? If a former president is called before congress and asked "What did you know, and when did you know it?" The answer will almost invariably be "I don't recall." Bill Clinton may vary the doldrums a bit by spouting something like "I never had sex with anybody in this room." In my living room, her on Gilligan's isl

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L6 years ago

Michelle K I couldn't agree with you more and I am a older white female.

Speeches do matter and President Obama is way pass due on this one. He should have started shouting from the rafters two years ago. It seems some Americans are just as greedy as business and/or too stupid to see what the Republicans have been up too ever since President Obama took office. It is race folks there are no two ways about it. They can't stand that the American people had the audacity to vote for and elect our first bi-racial President and McCain more than any of them or at least he's at the top of the list. These guys just can't stand it and that is why it was said by the Republicans on TV for the world to hear that they wanted him to fail and wwould do everything in their power to make it so. That is why they still haven't passed on some of his appointments, why the support a bill or an idea until he agrees with them, why they mistakenly mover so far to the right they at times look like a bunch of fascist.

Reelect President Obama and give him a majority of democrats in Congress and you WILL see real change.

Michelle Knight
Michelle Knight6 years ago

Sadly, many Many, MANY people are being snowed by the supposed bi-partisan split as being only a political issue! Is it still necessary to be a member of a minority to see & understand the real issue here! The repuglicans NEVER had any intention of working with a BLACK President & are stil quite pissed off that they are in the position to. NEVER, EVER, EVER, has anyone been able to even attempt to degrade/Disrespect/ or slander any presidnet of the U.S. in the history of the office. Do the repuglicans honestly think there are Not other intelligent people of minority status paying attention to what hey are doing, saying, depicting, infering, or just plain/simply/Ignorantly stating in regards to Mr. President Obama? Think again! I would vote for the worst Democrat ever in the party, before I would vote for the best repuglican. The repuglican party is composed mostly of White-Big-Money people who couldn't care less if anyone other than thier Families & Cohorts lived past tomorrow, & they have every intention of remaining that way. Make no mistake the repuglican politician-Dog will bite off the hand that feeds it as quickly as they accept illegal contributions or gifts!

Mary B.
Mary B6 years ago

If it's congress that has the power to take action on the proposal, then what are people bashing the President for?
Continually buying the idea that Big Corps own our elected officials is a way of whinning and doing nothing so you can just bash. What if you're mis reading the situation and you do have some power to get your congress people to respond? What is it you really want? What do you think is possible?Come on, people! Put up some fresh ideas or shut up. Show us that you still have a functioning brain.People who live under real dictatorships have been risking their lives because they believe they have the right to freedom from want and oppression.The least you can do is stop complaining and think up some creative solutions, even if they seem far fetched.You have to get out of the same old box before you're going to find any new thoughts.And those who have tried, thanks, don't give up just because you haven't gotton the responses you were hoping for. There has to be a 'Tipping Point' where enough people are ready to accept new ideas.And if you read broadly enough, you will find that is what's happening.

Catherine A.
Cat A6 years ago

It is too bad, but presidential speeches make no difference. People confuse the power in Washington and it is on the beltway. It is most of our elected Senators and Congressmen that are destroying our country because they sit in the pockets of special interest and believe themselves powerful.

Alexandra Rodda
Alexandra Rodda6 years ago

President Obama made an impassioned speech about what he cares about and this has nothing to do with being reelected next year, except that if he is reelected, especially with at least a 60% majority in congress and the senate, he would be able to actually realize his dream. He can, if you the voters let him. Say no to the party of no!

Fred C.
Fred C6 years ago

Short answer: No.

More Big Speeches from the doofus in the White House in the White House only show how irrelevant he is. Joint session of Congress for a silly political campaign speech? Must be something really important like FDR after Pearl Harbor or W after the 9/11 attacks. Lost count of how many times TOTUS said "Pass this Bill now" in a mash-up between a Sham-Wow pitch and Wimpy ("I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger I can have today.") When he invoked the class warfare meme, many in the hall laughed. An entirely appropriate response, even better than Joe Wilson's "You lie."

Btw, no Democrat sponsored his silly bill, so a Republican Congressman introduced a Bill, the only American Jobs Act on the House Calendar. It's a simple two-pager that cuts corporate taxes. If O's Bill that we must pass so urgently ever gets introduced, it will need a new name.

Over on the Senate side, Harry Reid is in no hurry to bring it to the floor, and the three free-trade zone treaties the vain, narcissist talked about have yet to be submitted to the Senate for ratification.

Who listens to this clown anymore? Does anyone care what he says?