Reminder: Big presidential speeches (mostly) don’t matter

January 22, 2013

A quick reality check: The president's inaugural address probably won't much matter come, say, next Thursday. And on the off-chance that it does, it will probably make President Obama's life harder rather than easier.


Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post

We'll spend the next week arguing over what Obama's second inaugural augurs for American politics. In my entry into the genre, I said that it represents Obama's changed strategy -- he's stopped trying to move America past old arguments and begun trying to win them. Noam Scheiber says that Obama has realized that "arguing for his worldview isn’t a separate task from governing." David Brooks says it means that "those who disagree [with Obama's liberalism] and those of us who partly agree now have to raise our game."

All good points based on the text of the speech, and its differences from Obamas first inaugural! But the speech is now over. And when we look back from, say, the elevated vantage point of next month, the realist in me says politics will look much as it did last week, and so too will the Obama administration's approach to governance

A swift review of the evidence on the bully pulpit: The president rarely changes anybody's mind because most of the people tuning in have already decided whether they like him and his ideas or not. Those who do like him are inclined to celebrate the speech. "If you have long believed, as I have, that this man could easily become the liberal Reagan by the end of his second term...then this speech will not have surprised you," wrote Andrew Sullivan. Those who don't like him are inclined to loathe the speech. Cue Ramesh Ponnuru: "the world will little note nor long remember anything President Barack Obama said in his second inaugural address."

As for the crucial group in the middle? Those who don't care mostly don't watch these speeches, or if they do, they wander back out of politics as soon as it's over. There are few examples of speeches moving public opinion in a significant way and almost no examples of speeches moving public opinion in an enduring way.

The polarizing tendency of presidential rhetoric can actually make the bully pulpit an impediment to governing amid divided government. Insofar as Obama's speech angered Republicans and united conservatives, it made it that much harder for him to work with the Republican House. That said, relations between Obama and the Republican House are so poor that it's hard to believe the speech made anything worse.

So if you imagine two mechanisms by which the speech could affect American politics -- persuading the public and moving members of Congress -- the speech is likely to be relatively ineffective on the first and, if anything, counterproductive on the second. Moving forward, Obama will still have to work with a Republican House and deal with a mostly apathetic public, and that's makes a strategy based around confrontational speeches unlikely.

That's not to say the speech was a bad speech, or that it shouldn't have been given. It's good to know what the president thinks! But we should be realistic about what presidential rhetoric can do, and what effect it can have. Above all, we in politics should remember that though we pay very close attention to these speeches and really enjoy arguing about them, that makes us possibly the least qualified people in the entire world to accurately predict the effect these speeches will have on the country, which is mostly composed of people who don't list "political rhetoric" as one of their main interests and/or hobbies.

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