Obama's Speech Will Be Forgotten
Presidents have at best only a marginal ability to shape their own political context
January 25, 2012
No. Now, to be fair, I think the operative word in the question is "winning." Obama certainly laid out an agenda for 2012, though there was nothing radically different in it from what he has said before. But to think of the address itself as a critical element of victory grossly exaggerates the impact of the speech, and the influence of the president.
The fact is that most voters will have forgotten the speech by—well, by now. We know presidents have at best a minimal ability to move public opinion through rhetoric, and Obama is no different. Last night's speech is not going to change the basic tenor of political discourse in this country. The focus of the political class will quickly return to the Republican nomination race, and as long as that contest persists, the national conversation will be centered on the GOP. This speech will join the same category as most annual messages—forgotten.
We should also recognize that presidents have at best only a marginal ability to shape their own political context. Obama's re-election prospects are far more contingent on things outside of his control. For example, nothing about last night's address will change the basic dynamics of a divided and highly polarized legislative branch this year, and one would expect the political calculations that are a normal part of interbranch relations to influence the fall contest. Add to that the unknown of how the Supreme Court will rule on Obama's signature legislative accomplishment--whether it upholds or overturns "Obamacare," the decision will motivate voters in unpredictable ways.
Then we have events truly outside the president's control. Little of last night's speech dwelled on foreign policy, but does anyone doubt that a fiscal crisis in Europe would impact the American economy—certainly the most important item influencing the fall vote? Finally, as much as Obama's surrogates want to influence the GOP nomination race, we do not yet know who his opponent will be, and how that knowledge will affect the dynamics of the general election.
All of the above makes this speech perhaps the least important aspect of Obama's fortunes in 2012.