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Shapiro: Will Obama's Speech Increase Public Support for Health Care Reform?

Topics: Barack Obama , Brandon Rotttinghaus , Health Care Reform

Robert Y. Shapiro is a professor of political science at Columbia University who specializes in public opinion, policymaking, political leadership, and mass media. He is a member of the board of directors of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

The polling and pundit world is now looking to see if President Obama's speech will rally public support for his health care reform plan. In addition to looking at the stream of polls that will now follow, I direct your attention, hot off the presses, to the latest issue of the journal Political Communication. A timely article by Brandon Rottinghaus provides a broader political science view on presidential efforts to influence public opinion. What we know from George Edwards' book, On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit (Yale, 2003), is that it is difficult for presidents to succeed at influencing public opinion. However, Rottinghaus's article provides evidence for why Obama correctly chose to take his best shot in a nationally televised speech.

The article uses "a comprehensive data set spanning 1953 to 2001," to examine "several strategic communications tactics through which the presidents might influence temporary opinion movements." Specifically, it finds that "presidential use of nationally televised addresses is the most consistently effective strategy to enhance presidential leadership, but the effect is lessened for later serving presidents." In contrast, other strategies such as those involving domestic travel do not have positive effects and "televised interactions"--press conferences and the like - tend to have negative effects. While some may not be surprised with these findings, it is good to have empirical evidence to wrestle with.

But getting to the point, how will this now play out for Obama? My sense is that Obama's speech will come out on or above average in impact, though there is a question of what its half-life will be. What I see as most important, however, is not the new polls that we will soon see (if they are not out already). Putting Rottinghaus' article aside, what will count most is not what the public thinks at this moment, but rather the extent to which Democratic leaders unite around Obama's plan (which may well be close to Baucus'?); it is this elite consensus that will enable any positive effect of the speech to last or even widen. This assumes that the consensus will be more salient and striking than any continued Republican opposition.

Echoing the famous political scientist, V.O. Key, what matters more than the immediate polls is political leadership more broadly. The speech itself is the start of what could be a stronger consensual message than we have seen to date from Democratic and potentially other political leaders. The relevant public opinion research comes from Richard Brody's book on presidential leadership, (Assessing the President: The Media, Elite Opinion, and Public Support. Stanford, 1991), John Zaller's seminal book on public opinion (The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, Cambridge, 1992), and what Ben Page and I examined (The Rational Public. Chicago, 1992).

Larry Jacobs and I (Politicians Don't Pander, Chicago, 2000) looked at the President Clinton's 1993-94 health care reform effort from this perspective. What happened there was the Democratic leaders never supported any Clinton plan, and this, along with the strong Republican leadership opposition caused the public to become apprehensive and turn against health care reform. This happened much earlier in the legislative process than what occurring now, as the Clinton plan got to Congress later in Clinton's first term. In contrast, we are at that same juncture now --- however, earlier in Obama's first term but later in the legislative process, as there are now actual bills that have made it through congressional committees. Clinton never made it that far. The Democrats now have a better chance than Clinton did, since at this moment they are poised to unite around a president's plan. But if they don't do that quickly, then it's 1994 all over again. If by all appearances they come together, they can prevent public support from tapering off and very likely increase it.

In the end, Obama may have timed his entry into the fight just right--it's earlier than when Clinton entered the actual legislative fray in 1994--and this may have been the only way he could have gotten a major health care reform bill through. Given the financial crisis, the stimulus bill, and the two wars, he may well have been stopped in his tracks earlier on--without the health care reform bills making it through multiple committees as they have. He needed to enter the fight when he could rally congressional support in both houses, with drafted legislation in hand and already substantially debated. Of course we will never know since as we can't replay history. For now, the main point is don't just watch the polls-watch the leaders. The public will not just be responding to Obama but to the extent to which he has liberal, blue dog, and any (albeit unlikely) Republican leadership support.

 

Comments
Dave P:

Another take on Obama's speech and its relationship to political leadership is from Washington Post television critic Tom Shales who compares the symbolism of the speech to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/09/AR2009090903587.html?sub=AR

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