By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
President Biden traveled to Georgia on Tuesday to speak on behalf of the Democrats’ voting and democracy agenda, which includes two bills currently on the Senate floor. That follows his Jan. 6 speech, which was also focused on democracy and the importance of voting rights to democracy. Let’s back away from the specific topic here, and talk a bit about the point of these speeches.
Presidential speeches rarely change minds about anything. That was even true before the current era of intense partisan polarization, and it’s surely more true now. After all, Republicans are even less likely to bother listening to a Democratic president’s speeches (and vice versa) than was the case 40 years ago, and those who pay little attention to politics are less likely to accidentally stumble on a speech or even news programs that run sound bites from it than they were in the days when three major television networks dominated that national political conversation. If President Ronald Reagan couldn’t change people’s minds in the 1980s, it’s unlikely Biden can do so today.
Nor is it likely that a presidential speech can put pressure on wavering members of Congress by activating their constituents on a policy question.
So what’s the point?
For one thing, presidents as party leaders have to do a fair amount of coalition management. The entire party agenda never gets enacted; it’s part of the president’s job to show those party groups who care deeply about various policy areas — perhaps especially those where progress is stalled — that the party has not abandoned them.
That’s related to the president’s representational relationship with voters; in this case, some of Biden’s strongest supporters. Representation involves explaining actions in office in terms of promises that were made during the campaign. Thus Biden brought back his campaign refrain of fighting for the nation’s “soul” now that he (and Democrats in Congress, and party groups) have defined that fight in part as passage of a set of specific bills and policies.
That’s not all. Presidential speeches provide potentially worthwhile signals to those who do want to listen. Devoting resources — and the president’s time is an important and limited resource — to a speech on one topic signals that the White House considers it important. When there is competition within the party in Congress over which legislation to move, a common situation, the president’s voice may carry some weight, even without changing anyone’s vote.
Presidential attention, signaled through public speeches, can also have agenda-setting effects, leading the mass media to focus more on the policy areas the president talks about. This can sometimes help the president’s popularity if attention can be shifted from an area that isn’t going well to one where people are happy with the president’s performance, or it can simply increase the perceived importance of some issue. That doesn’t guarantee that the president’s wishes will be granted. Presidents don’t have that kind of power. But Biden’s democracy agenda would definitely have a better chance of at least partial enactment if Republicans sensed they had to have some sort of policy response, rather than just rejecting the entire topic as unsuitable for federal intervention.
And for the president’s strong supporters, presidential speeches can do one more thing: They can signal the party position to those who haven’t been paying attention. In some ways, thinking about changing people’s minds is the wrong way to account for public opinion; most voters do not have strong feelings, or any position at all, on most policy questions. Presidential speeches can furnish ready-made opinions, and even the language to express those opinions and the arguments to make on their behalf, for those party voters.
There’s also plenty of research showing that the opposite effect happens as well: Voters from the other party, once they are made aware of the president’s position, will tend to move from indifference to opposition (and even from agreement to opposition, in some cases). That said, these kinds of public opinions are usually shallowly held and easily forgotten once the particular issue fades from the headlines.
There isn’t much to say in the context of presidential speeches about winning policy fights. That’s because speeches just aren’t central to the bargaining presidents do. And the president is only one player, and sometimes not even the main one, in congressional negotiations.
A lot of the public opinion and representation effects are less about impact on policy and changing votes in Congress than about the texture and experience of politics in a democracy. And that, too, is important.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.