The Trouble With Speeches

I sort of worry that having the President deliver an address to a joint session of Congress this evening is going to raise unrealistic expectations about using the power of rhetoric to move the dial of public opinion. The Presidential bully pulpit carries with it one extremely important power—it gives the White House enormous ability to set the agenda. There’s a reason we’re all talking about health reform right now rather than overhauling federal K–12 policy or federal transportation policy or tax policy. The reason is that Barack Obama set the agenda. But in terms of shifting public opinion, John Sides notes that systematic research indicates that speeches almost never do this.

There’s a bit of a myth around Bill Clinton’s 1994 health care speech and the specific motion in the Gallup poll. But looked at in context, it seems like another example of the relative inefficacy of speechmaking:


Barack Obama is popular enough at the moment, but not overwhelmingly popular. And that’s likely to stay the same in the short run. What happens in the longer run will probably mostly relate to the performance of the economy.