Earlier this week, Matt Yglesias continued his argument that presidential speeches do not matter:
This, right before our eyes, is a living, breathing example of why presidential speechmaking doesn’t do the things people say it does. It doesn’t even have the intended impact on its intended audience! Is Atrios fired up and ready to go? Prepared to stop writing sarcastic, depressed, and dismissive blog posts and instead go hard against the president’s critics, boosting the morale of the president’s audience? No, he’s sarcastic, depressed, and dismissive because the objective situation is depressing and everyone knows the jobs plan won’t pass.
I think this type of thinking is emblematic of a serious failing in Beltway Democratic political thinking in two ways.
First, I hope the "intended audience" for the president's speech was not media types, establishment or otherwise (Atrios being in the otherwise camp). (It so happens that the president's speech got boffo reviews from establishment and non-establishment media types, so if that were the goal, the president's speech "worked.") The president's speech was about starting a political narrative—President Obama wants to do something about jobs and the Republicans do not.
The second failing is misunderstanding that, at this point, presidential speeches will be about his reelection campaign. The president cannot and should not say that this is what is going on, but it is. Ask yourself this: What meaningful initiatives have come out of Washington on the state of the economy this year? The answer is, of course, other than those presented by President Obama, none. The Republican House has presented precisely nothing. This is not surprising—they have nothing to offer. Nor will they agree to any initiatives from the president. The president's job this year has been to limit the damage done by the Congress. His results have been somewhat mixed on this score. This is because he either believed he had to try to work with the radical House, or he felt it would be politically advantageous to be appearing to do so. The latter certainly has not proven true, and with regard to the former, nothing has been accomplished.
The Prime Directive now has to be to win reelection. Policy is over with this Congress. Nothing will be accomplished. So the evaluation of presidential speeches and rhetoric must be viewed through the prism of whether they work politically. What does "work politically" mean? I think this is simple and yet, as Yglesias demonstrates, not well understood by Beltway pundits. It means getting more votes (or keeping the Republicans from getting more votes). It does not mean getting pundits—be they David Brooks or Duncan Black—on board.
Last week, in How To Win Reelection In Bad Economic Times, I posited that:
Here is my thinking on how to win reelection in bad economic times—pin the blame on the other guys. Sure, you say, but how?
Here’s how—show you care (speeches matter). Show you are doing something (announcing things you are doing). Show you are proposing things for the other guys to do. Show that the other guys are not doing anything good.
I thought the president’s speech was successful in all these areas.
Why would this be politically successful as I define it (get more votes)? Because if the voters believe these things, they will be more likely to vote for President Obama and less likely to vote for Republicans.
Saturday, the president continued the push he has sustained since the speech to Congress. As Susan Gardner reported, the president continued his rhetoric that in essence says, the Republicans are doing nothing about the economy. The president said:
So the time for action is now. No more games or gridlock. No more division or delay. It’s time for the people you sent to Washington to put country before party–to stop worrying so much about their jobs and start worrying more about yours.
This new, more combative approach the president has adopted is paying dividends. In the most recent PPP polling (PDF), the president has improved his position:
President Obama’s jobs speech last Thursday night might have given him a boost in his bid for re-election. After tying his perpetually strongest potential challenger Mitt Romney last month, Obama again leads him, but still by a smaller margin than he beat John McCain in the national popular vote three years ago. Everyone else far underperforms McCain, who lost to the president in a near landslide. Obama tops Romney, 49-45, up from a 45-all tie in PPP’s August national poll. He leads Rick Perry, 52-41 (49-43 in August); Newt Gingrich, 53-41; and Michele Bachmann, 53-39 (50-42). [. . .]The president’s more solid standing in the Perry and Romney horseraces comes from consolidating his party support. He was losing 13% of Democrats to each candidate in August, but only 11% to Romney and 9% to Perry now. Obama has meanwhile upped his own crossover support, from 5% to 9% of Republicans versus Romney and 10% to 11% against Perry. The president leads Perry by ten points with independents, but Romney tops Obama by two with them.
Political strategery would suggest that despite any misgivings from David Brooks, Duncan Black or Matt Yglesias, presidential speeches DO matter and the president's rhetoric this week has been good politics. You know why? Because the evidence suggests that it has made people more likely to vote for him and less likely to vote for Republicans.
I hope he keeps it up.