Given that immigration reform is shaping up to be one of the key legislative legacies of President Obama’s second term, many were surprised when the president devoted just five short paragraphs, 210 words (out of more than 6,400, or 3 percent), to the bill in his State of the Union address this week. Many immigration advocates took to Twitter to complain that he didn’t do more to “convince” the public and Congress to support a bill.
The problem with this complaint is twofold. First, the president has almost absolutely no ability to move public opinion. Second, the success of an immigration bill actually depends on the president’s ability to remove himself from the debate and disassociate his name from the bill.
First, let's discuss the bully pulpit. Richard Neustadt, perhaps the preeminent scholar on the presidency, wrote in his 1960 book Presidential Power that “the power of the presidency is the power to persuade.”
Over the last 50 years, Neustadt's words have become conventional wisdom among Americans, reporters, and especially among presidents themselves. Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, tried hard to rally the country behind his policy agenda from his bully pulpit. Bill Clinton made hundreds of appearances during his presidency to move public opinion, particularly on health care. George W. Bush embarked on a 60-day tour, “Conversations on Social Security,” to sell his Social Security privatization plan.
Obama, too, believes in the persuasive power of the presidency. When asked by Charlie Rose what he thought his biggest mistake was of his first term, he said he didn't try hard enough to tell the right story to the American people.
Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom is wrong. In 1993, when George Edwards III, the distinguished political science professor at Texas A&M, began looking into the persuasive powers of the presidency, he found surprising evidence (or lack thereof). Contrary to common wisdom, he found a sitting president can help set an agenda but has very little ability to move public opinion.
Edwards first looked at Reagan (again, remember that Reagan has been compared to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt as one of America’s greatest orators) and concluded that, contrary to widely held beliefs, Reagan was not a persuasive president.
Polling shows that public support for programs that the president opposed (welfare, urban problems, environmental protection, etc.) increased while the president was in office, and those that he supported (defense expenditures, aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua) decreased. In other words, "people were less persuaded by Reagan when he left office than they were when he took office."
Reagan, it turns out, was not alone in his inability to move public opinion. After Clinton's barnstorming tour, his popularity tanked, his health care bill died, and his party lost control of the House. Bush's 60-day tour occurred simultaneously with plummeting support for the privatization of Social Security, forcing him to abandon the issue altogether. And the more Obama took to public forums to sell his health care bill, the more its popularity fell.
Tuesday’s State of the Union, considered by many to be the ultimate annual “persuasive” speech of any president’s tenure, was no different. A Gallup study of 30 years of polling data found that State of the Union addresses "rarely affect a president's public standing in a meaningful way."
George Edwards has convincingly shown that the conventional wisdom is wrong. The rhetorical presidency is an appealing and enduring theme in the collective American understanding of politics, but it is more fiction than fact. Immigration activists need not worry that the president didn’t push hard enough for immigration reform in his speech. He wouldn’t have gotten too far.
But the president is avoiding a full push on immigration reform for a more critical reason. With incipient bipartisan support for an immigration bill, the fastest way for the president to kill the bill is to have his name attached to it. As The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein put it, "by staying out, at least for now, the Obama administration is making it easier for Republicans to stay in."