Bush, Obama and Speechifying: Evaluating the Public’s Response

Do you remember George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, where he said the following?:

“Our first goal is clear: We must have an economy that grows fast enough to employ every man and woman who seeks a job.

After recession, terrorist attacks, corporate scandals and stock market declines, our economy is recovering. Yet it is not growing fast enough, or strongly enough.

With unemployment rising, our nation needs more small businesses to open, more companies to invest and expand, more employers to put up the sign that says, “Help Wanted.”

Jobs are created when the economy grows; the economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest; and the best and fairest way to make sure Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place.

I am proposing that all the income tax reductions set for 2004 and 2006 be made permanent and effective this year.

And under my plan, as soon as I’ve signed the bill, this extra money will start showing up in workers’ paychecks.

Instead of gradually reducing the marriage penalty, we should do it now.

Instead of slowly raising the child credit to $1,000, we should send the checks to American families now.

This tax relief is for everyone who pays income taxes, and it will help our economy immediately. Ninety-two million Americans will keep this year an average of almost $1,100 more of their own money. A family of four with an income of $40,000 would see their federal income taxes fall from $1,178 to $45 per year.”

How do you think the public who watched his speech reacted to that?  Did they find his argument that taxes wouldn’t go up on his watch persuasive? Were they more inclined to support his economic policies as a result  of the speech?

Sure they were.  Here’s the CBS “snap poll” gauging the audience’s views on Bush’s tax and economic policies before and after viewing his speech.

IN THE NEXT TWO YEARS YOUR TAXES WILL…

Before Speech
Increase 54%

Decrease 15%

Stay the same 30%

After Speech
Increase 27%

Decrease 41%

Stay the same 31%

Notice the decrease in the number of people who, as a result of watching Bush’s speech, now believe their taxes will go up – it’s almost a 30% change.

We see a similar jump in support  in the number of viewers who believe Bush shares their priorities for the nation:

DOES BUSH HAVE SAME PRIORITIES FOR NATION AS YOU DO?

Before speech
Yes 54%

No 46%

After speech
Yes 81%

No 19

Now consider the viewing public’s views on Bush’s foreign policy. We see a similar reaction to his call to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, using force if necessary.  First, here’s what he said:

“Our nation and the world must learn the lessons of the Korean Peninsula and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq. A brutal dictator, with a history of reckless aggression, with ties to terrorism, with great potential wealth will not be permitted to dominate a vital region and threaten the United States.

Twelve years ago, Saddam Hussein faced the prospect of being the last casualty in a war he had started and lost. To spare himself, he agreed to disarm of all weapons of mass destruction.

For the next 12 years, he systematically violated that agreement. He pursued chemical, biological and nuclear weapons even while inspectors were in his country.

Nothing to date has restrained him from his pursuit of these weapons: not economic sanctions, not isolation from the civilized world, not even cruise missile strikes on his military facilities….

And tonight I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq: Your enemy is not surrounding your country, your enemy is ruling your country.

And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.

The world has waited 12 years for Iraq to disarm. America will not accept a serious and mounting threat to our country and our friends and our allies.

The United States will ask the U.N. Security Council to convene on February the 5th to consider the facts of Iraq’s ongoing defiance of the world. Secretary of State Powell will present information and intelligence about Iraqi’s — Iraq’s illegal weapons programs, its attempts to hide those weapons from inspectors and its links to terrorist groups.

We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding: If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.”

And here’s the reaction:

U.S. MILITARY ACTION TO REMOVE SADDAM HUSSEIN?

Approve before speech 67%

Disapprove before speech 32%

Approve after speech 77%

Disapprove after speech 22%

Once again, among those who watched the speech, it elicited a jump in support – this time 10% –  in favor of Bush’s policy to remove Hussein by military force.

My point in revisiting the public reaction to Bush’s 2003 address to a joint session of Congress is not meant to justify Bush’s policy pronouncements on taxes, the economy or the use of military force to remove Hussein. Instead, I want to make two points that I think must be kept in mind as we assess the reaction among those who watched the Obama and Jindal speeches on Tuesday.  If you believe the chattering class, the polling data indicates that Jindal’s career is over, while the response to Obama’s speech reflects broad public support for his policies. There are two problems with this interpretation of the polling results.

First, the viewing audience for these speeches is not a random sample of Americans. Instead, it is almost always weighted more heavily toward the president’s partisans. In Bush’s case, his speech was watched by an audience that was 8% more Republican than the public as a whole.  Second, the pageantry and symbolism involved in a joint address to Congress can override, to a point, some of the viewing audience’s political predispositions, so that even those who are not naturally inclined to share the president’s political leanings may express support for his policies.  The viewers think, “Here is a speech by our president, standing in our Congress.”  A joint address, with all the pageantry and theatre, is a reminder of more enduring, less partisan symbols that define our nation.  Presidents know this, and play to those symbols.  Witness Obama’s use of “real people” stories to drive home his points, as well as references to the First Lady (who doesn’t like her?) and his signing autographs after the speech.  The idea in invoking these symbols is to make the occasion rise above partisan politics.

Now compare the backdrop to a State of the Union (or equivalent) address to where poor Bobby Jindal gave his speech. He looked like he was standing in the hallway of his house.  I fully expected Ms. Jindal to call him to take out the trash midway through the talk.  No one lined the hall to get his autograph!  (By the way, the use of a faux-Oval Office setting was one of the nice touches in Candidate Obama’s nationwide address shortly before the 2008 presidential election.)

I could have pulled out almost any State of the Union speech to make these points, but I thought the Bush speech provided the most dramatic impact because of what happened in Iraq and to the economy while he was president.  The lesson, I hope, is clear: you shouldn’t over interpret the public reactions, based on polling data, to major presidential addresses. They almost always elicit a short-term burst of approval for the president and the policies he enunciates, in part because of the sample bias inherent in the audience.  If you are predisposed to support the president, you are more likely to watch his speech, and to register approval for what he says afterward.  But it is also the case that even those in the viewing audience who are ideologically less inclined to support the president will tend nonetheless to suspend those inclinations and react favorably to a presidential address because of the symbolic aspect of the event.  Presidents aren’t just political figures – they are also, in part, the embodiment of national sovereignty.  That symbolic or affective aspect of their role is often what gets captured in respondents’ answers to polling questions.

By the way – do you remember who gave the Democratic response to Bush’s 2003 speech, and how it was received?  Of course you don’t.

It was Washington Governor Gary Locke – and his speech, as with Jindal’s, did not convince a majority of his audience to prefer the Democratic alternative economic plan that he laid out (but note the partisan split):

THE DEMOCRATIC PLAN

Presented a clear alternative
All 46%

Republicans 21%

Democrats 73%

Would do a better job stimulating the economy
All 42%

Republicans 10%

Democrats 71%

Locke, as most of you know, is now in line to become the next Secretary of Commerce.  Take heart, Jindal!

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