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Obama's speech tonight probably won't matter

Joshua Tucker doesn't think Obama's speech on Afghanistan is likely to make much of a difference:

According to research by Professor George Edwards of Texas A&M University, recent presidents, no matter how golden-tongued, have had virtually no power to change public opinion on foreign policy. Bill Clinton, for example, kicked off a high-profile call to send U.S. peacekeepers to Bosnia with a nationally televised address in November 1995. In response, public approval for the idea hardly moved at all, hovering around 40 percent for the next two years. Likewise, despite repeated pleas to the public, Ronald Reagan never moved support for aiding the Nicaraguan contras beyond the mid-30s.

Similarly, Obama's health-care speech didn't move public opinion in any lasting sense. Nor did Bill Clinton's big health-care speech. Presidential speeches just don't seem to have a lasting impact on public opinion. My hunch, however, is that this will not be a big theme in the commentary and analysis on the address.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 1, 2009; 1:57 PM ET
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i think this is going to be a very important speech.
i think it is going to create an important and lasting perception of how we view obama's interpretation of this effort.
i also think he is going to be held accountable down the road, for the defining words he uses tonight.

Posted by: jkaren | December 1, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

president obama

the stakes are so high.
please dont forget to watch this several times a week.

Posted by: jkaren | December 1, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

What would happen to the world of political punditry if this became accepted wisdom? I agree with the overall point Ezra makes here, but more broadly, I think its true of presidential speeches, press conferences, "jobs" summits, all of this stuff is nonsense and just theater which only serves to reinforce what people already think, one direction or the other.

Its probably even true about the never-ending political campaigns! I mean, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton announced for president in Jan 2007, and one or the other was probably going to win all things being equal because of the overall state of the country in 2008, regardless of the hundreds of millions of dollars of campaigning and the massive industry that exists to analyze and report on the whole carnival.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | December 1, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

It will matter, because the base is already feeling betrayed, and their antenna will be up for the weasel words that burned them in the past. People know this particular war is bad news. They've heard about the graveyard of empires. They're going to see on their TV a young president, out of his depth, trying to sell something even he probably doesn't believe in. It's going to be bad.

Posted by: bmull | December 1, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I beg to differ. The health-care speech didn't have a lasting effect, because he tried to convince independents and conservatives who either don't listen to these speeches or are hard to convince and easily misleadable by republican propaganda.
However, the Afghanistan speech has to convince Obama's base that his strategy is the right thing to do. The liberals are against the troop surge. And they will listen.

Posted by: GCReptile | December 1, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

bmull has it right! a real leader would lead with his convictions. Obama knows damn well this surge is just part of covering his rear end just in case there is another attack in the US during his term because if there is another attack, he won't have to listen to jackasses like cheney and mccain saying I told you so. If Obama were as passionate a leader as some believe him to be, then he's give an impassioned speech to educate the country about how war never solves problems.

Posted by: goadri | December 1, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

At least for awhile post-9/11 this wasn't true of foreign affairs. Look at Powell's speech to the UN, Bush's 2003 State of the Union, the whole mushroom cloud canard.

But once bitten is twice shy, and we are probably drifting back to the norm. And I think it will be the base and the rabid GOPers who listen. No one will be persuaded. So Ezra's right.

Posted by: Mimikatz | December 1, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

I'd argue that the healthcare speech, in stopping the panic of the August tea-parties is a textbook example of an efficacious speech. Why do you seem to believe it wasn't?

Posted by: adamiani | December 1, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

I want to play a bit of devil's advocate and pick up on adamiani's point: there are two ways that health care reform (to take an example) achieves such stable polling numbers. One is the model Ezra put forward: nothing anyone says really matters in terms of moving the needle and inertia guides the numbers. The other model is adamiani's: it's more of a tug of war that happens to be pretty evenly matched for the most part and so the second one side stops speechifying you immediately move the needle in the opposite direction. It's pretty much impossible to distinguish between the two because you'll never get one side to shut up and test out these cool hypotheses. Once again, the world needs science but can't get it.

Posted by: reader44 | December 1, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

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