Presidential persuasion is way overrated.
Remember that this week as President Obama sits down for interviews with six media outlets Monday night and as he speaks to the nation in prime time Tuesday night — a full-court press to try to build momentum among the American public and Congress for his use-of-force resolution against Syria.
Obama, who stunningly reversed course in deciding to put the resolution up for congressional approval, is doing everything within his power to bend the country to his will. But the truth — both of his term and of the modern presidency more broadly — is that presidents’ ability to change public opinion is far more limited than many believe.
“People are war-weary and less inclined to give the president or Congress the benefit of the doubt,” said former South Carolina governor Jim Hodges (D). “A complicating factor is that this president has limited political capital to draw on— and that won’t change until the economy shows greater momentum.”
Hodges hits on a critical point. Presidents are at their most persuasive when external conditions in the political landscape — the economy, overall optimism, etc. — line up with their priorities.
And that is definitely not the case for Obama at the moment. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week showed that nearly six in 10 Americans — including a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents — oppose U.S.-led military strikes against Syria, even after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people. Anecdotal evidence suggests similar opposition among the general public. On Wednesday, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) tweeted that his office had received 753 calls opposing military intervention in Syria and just 10 in favor.
Couple those doubts with a middling— at best— jobs report Friday that showed 169,000 jobs created in August and the unemployment rate dipping slightly to 7.3 percent, and Obama’s positioning to be persuasive is decidedly weakened.
There are plenty of other reasons to believe that the president’s words over the next two days will change little.
One is the fact that the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans in the House are in districts where their only electoral concerns are primaries. For a Democrat in a strongly Democratic House seat, then, voting for an attack on Syria amounts to an invitation for someone to run to their left in 2014. For a Republican in a safe GOP seat, supporting a Democratic president on a resolution that is broadly unpopular would open the door for a conservative challenger.
The Senate, while not governed by a national gerrymander that rewards strict adherence to party, presents similar problems for Obama’s ability to persuade. Many of the Democrats that make up the party’s majority represent conservative states where going along with the president — on virtually anything — is a political mistake. Witness Sen. Joe Manchin III (D) of West Virginia and Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas, both of whom have come out against Obama’s Syria resolution. (The Senate’s geography, by the way, also explains — at least in part — why gun control went nowhere this year despite national public opinion strongly in support of it and Obama aggressively pushing it.)
Another reason to doubt presidential persuasion is the difficulty in pushing any single message given the wide variety of places where people now get their news. In the past, interviews with PBS, CNN, Fox News, ABC, CBS and NBC would assure that the vast majority of the country would hear a president’s message. Not so today, when the fracturing of media means that people simply don’t look to a single source (or even a handful of sources) to get their information.
Republicans insist that all of the above amounts to excuse-making for a president who simply has lost the public. “Some will point to war-weariness and media fragmentation, and they’re not wrong, but the real problem is the lack of a compelling case for the national interest that is stated with conviction and fits the spirit of the times,” said Tucker Eskew, a Republican strategist and partner at Vianovo. “If a leader gets out of step with the people he wants marching behind him, he can’t just make the band play louder.”
And while many Democrats insist that expecting Obama to change hearts and minds on Syria is, in this day and age, close to impossible, there are some who still think he can have a real impact on the public debate over the next 48 to 72 hours.
“The president still has the unique ability to command the attention of the American people, especially in times of crisis and around issues of national security,” said Mike Feldman, a former aide to Vice President Al Gore and now a partner at the Glover Park Group. “It appears that the next few days will be a real test of that dynamic.”
They will indeed.