Did Biden’s big speech change his mind?
President Joe Biden delivered a prime-time address on Thursday on gun violence. It was carried by all three broadcast networks, as well as cable stations. As for presidential speeches, it was fine; he mixed some lofty political goals with support for more modest ones that might have a chance of passing, and added a bit of Republican bashing to the mix. But why make such speeches? We don’t know what White House staff thought it could accomplish, but we do know that high expectations would have been unrealistic. Presidential speeches are highly unlikely to change public policy. This was true throughout the election period. This was true when presidents were popular. This has been true for presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, who were generally considered good public speakers. Given that Biden isn’t popular right now and political speech directly in front of the camera isn’t his strength, there’s really no reason to think he’ll change his mind. At the same time, these speeches usually don’t improve a president’s poll numbers or get voters to contact their members of Congress to ask them to do what the president wants. A plausible goal is to inform loyalists and supporters of a position they previously were unaware of. But gun safety isn’t that kind of issue; nearly all of the strong Democrats already support the party’s position. Nor will such speeches have much effect on supporters of the other party, who are far less likely to watch. (In case anyone is probing what speech watchers are thinking, remember that there is a strong selection effect at work, in which people in the president’s party are much more likely to watch, and will constitute hence the bulk of respondents.) The one thing chairs can potentially influence in setting the agenda; they can sometimes convince people that the subject of the speech is a very important issue. But that’s unlikely to happen here, given that gun violence already dominates headlines, news shows and social media. Perhaps the White House staffers knew none of this and thought they could accomplish the impossible. But there are a few more reasonable goals they could have had in mind. The first would simply be a question of representation. When something big happens, politicians often feel compelled to let their constituents know what they are doing in response. There are also media expectations, and although Biden has already spoken out on the subject several times, it is possible that the White House wanted to avoid the press from criticizing him for not having done everything he could. to fight for his proposed measures. Or it could be that Biden’s allies — in Congress, within the party, among activists — are pushing him to say more. For example, some Democratic senators might want to hedge to support a compromise bill that they think they can pass, but which might disappoint activists. In such cases, the president’s ability to convey the party’s position could make it easier to sell a deal to voters. Another possibility ? Biden will be criticized if nothing gets through, no matter what he does, but if something does, he’ll want to take credit for it — and a high-profile speech ahead of Congressional votes likely deflects some critics who might wonder s has something to do with it. That’s a pretty marginal reason for a speech, but it might seem important to those in the White House who have to deal with such things. Which brings us to a very good reason to make these speeches: there are often few or no downsides. While presidential time (and staff support) isn’t exactly an infinite resource, delivering that speech likely involved only minor compromises. It’s true that high-level presidential involvement on such issues can be polarizing, but Biden was going to push for his proposed measures one way or another, and that speech is unlikely to spark any polarization on the question that would not have happened otherwise. So even if the possible benefits are marginal at best, there is no real reason not to go ahead. For weekend reading, here are some of the top articles from political scientists this week: