Tuesday, September 08, 2009

"Can Obama's Big Speech Really Turn Public Opinion Around?"

That's the topic of historian George C. Edwards III's blog post over at History News Network.

Looking at presidents noted for their persuasive powers and legislative achievements, Edwards concludes that "the power to persuade" may be a bit overstated. I think that he's right.

Presidents (and other political actors) can persuade only as much as the moment allows. They can exploit and they can nudge, but they can't create consensus out of whole cloth. Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, for example, both learned this.

Abraham Lincoln admitted to having been controlled by events. But, in spite of the seeming fatalism of that admission, Lincoln is remembered, rightly, as a great and decisive president. The point is that he understood his moment.

Even without achieving their most cherished of personal goals--as was the case with Ronald Reagan, presidents can achieve great things if they have the vision not to see ahead, but to see their worlds as they are during their times in office.

The bottom line for me is this: President Obama's health care speech tomorrow night may clarify some things; but it will have little to do with what I expect will be the ultimate outcome, congressional passage of a new health care plan. Passage will happen because, the polling suggests, Americans are ready for some of the individual components of the plan. It's a ripe historical moment and Obama seems to understand that.

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