But, as Edwards notes, all of them ran into significant resistance to their policy initiatives later in their presidencies. He argues that their early successes owed more to their ability to take advantage of favorable conditions than to their powers of persuasion. Of Roosevelt’s later years, he writes, “Either Roosevelt had lost his persuasive skills, which is not a reasonable proposition, or other factors were more significant in determining congressional support.”
Edwards writes that “we must not assume the power to persuade” and at one point states flatly, “There is not a single systematic study that demonstrates that presidents can reliably persuade others to support them.”
Instead, he writes, “The most effective presidents do not create opportunities by reshaping the political landscape. Instead, they exploit opportunities already present in their environments to facilitate significant changes in public policy. . . . Effective facilitators are skilled leaders who must recognize the opportunities that exist in their environments, choose which opportunities to pursue, when and in what order, and exploit them with skill, energy, perseverance, and will.”
When I talked to Edwards about this on Friday in the context of Obama’s coming speech, he said, “There’s a broad, fundamental point, which is that presidents rarely move public opinion.” He also noted that the default position among the public is to do nothing. “The default position doesn’t advantage the president,” he said.
Swaying public opinion
The Gallup organization put out an analysis Friday that said support for taking military action against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons “is on track to be among the lowest for any intervention Gallup has asked about in the last 20 years.”
If anything, Obama’s task looks more difficult today than it did when he announced that he would seek congressional authorization. Obama has been effective in making the moral case for responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. He has been far less effective in making the case that military strikes represent the best response.
A week of presidential rhetoric and closed-door meetings with world leaders has produced no demonstrable rise in support for his position. Public opinion, backing from other countries and congressional whip counts have not moved in his direction. Based on Edwards’s analysis, the president’s speech Tuesday will produce minimal changes overall in public opinion.
The president will talk to ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN and Fox News Channel for interviews that will air Monday night, White House officials said.
With the Republican rank and file generally opposed to Obama’s position, despite support from GOP congressional leaders, the president must hope he can sway members of his own party to overcome their doubts and back the resolution for the use of force. The situation is not static, and Obama’s skills as a leader will be important between now and when Congress votes.
Still, if presidents have far less power to persuade than is popularly assumed, and if the default position of a war-weary nation is to oppose what is seen as a potentially risky intervention in Syria, and if many Republican lawmakers are steadfastly against almost anything Obama proposes, the larger question about presidential leadership in this case is why Obama chose the course he took.
Certainly his argument that there are constitutional reasons to seek congressional approval for military action is valid. But if the key to leadership is less the power to persuade and more the capacity to understand the conditions that exist and to exploit them when they are favorable, then Obama’s sudden move to throw the decision to Congress appears all the more risky.
In the end, presidents often get their way on these matters. For Obama, falling short would come at an enormously high cost.
For previous columns by Dan Balz,
go to postpolitics.com.