Obama's media blitz: Mission impossible?
9/9/2013, 8:57 a.m.
Even overseas, among nations much closer to Syria, the president's rhetorical offensive has fallen short. No president in modern times has had such a tiny coalition behind him. Eighteen nations contributed to the intervention in Libya. President George W. Bush had 48 nations in the coalition that attacked Saddam Hussein. This time around, Obama will have only a handful supporting his intervention and most will be cheering from the sidelines.
A shaky pulpit
This controversy is also coming at an inopportune moment for the president. Early on at the White House, he could command massive, almost adoring audiences at every major address. But with the exception of his speech announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden, the numbers tuning in have dropped, viewers tend to be more partisan and television commentators have toughened up on him. Notably, his two Syrian interviews on television so far have drawn only modest audiences.
It has been little noticed but is important now that Obama has also had more success selling himself than his policies.
Obama's speeches -- despite their rhetorical strength and skilled delivery -- have had little success in moving his agenda forward. Americans still like him, but they tend to make up their own minds about his policies. Witness his inability, even now, to build a public majority in favor of Obamacare. The White House would argue that a majority have supported his stands on gun control and gay rights, but is that because of his speeches or because of demographic shifts and events such as the Newtown elementary school massacre?
Indeed, there is now a debate among political scientists whether the bully pulpit is all that it is cracked up to be, especially in contemporary politics.
Professor George Edwards of Texas A&M University and a dean among political scientists concluded in his 2006 book, "On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit," that we have a highly inflated view of how much presidents have been able to change public minds through their speeches.
He presents numerous cases to support his argument and one that is especially relevant today:
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a legendary ability to connect with Americans through his fireside chats, but when it came to convincing a skeptical public about his Supreme Court-packing bill in his second term, the fire fizzled out. Edwards' data also suggests that presidents only succeed in mobilizing the public when opinion is already in their favor. This is clearly not the case with Syria.
To our memory, the last Oval Office address that dramatically moved the public opinion needle over military conflict came in late 1983 when President Ronald Reagan spoke to the country about a bloody attack on marine barracks in Lebanon and U.S. intervention in the tiny island of Grenada. Public support for military action jumped 10 points in immediate polling. But in that case, Reagan was telling a story about what had already happened to a public whose majority already favored intervention. He was not asking them to rally round a new, uncertain venture, and he was also still in his first term when audiences were big.
This is not to argue that all is lost for Obama on Tuesday night. Big speeches can reframe issues. They can unite us behind a higher purpose. They can push us to question our firmly held beliefs. Obama does have unusually persuasive powers. Perhaps he can come up with fresh arguments that will bring undecideds in his direction. Perhaps he will have horrific new evidence of how brutal al-Assad is.
Perhaps ... perhaps, but if he has new arrows in his quiver, he likely would have shot them by now.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergan and Dan Katz
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