Most Americans look to the President for leadership, but evidence compiled by Pew Research suggests they don't often find it in major presidential speeches.
President Obama will try his luck tonight in a televised address seeking to convince skeptical, war-weary Americans of the need to make a targeted military strike against Syria. Polling data indicates opinion is running against U.S. military action.
Based on history, Pew Research says Obama's speech isn't like to make much difference, except perhaps to make the emotionally charged issue more partisan.
After sifting through a database of major presidential addresses devoted to specific topics, Pew concluded, "The speeches don't seem to do much to move the needle on public opinion or push Congress in the President's direction."
"President Reagan, for instance, was unable to convince even a plurality of Americans that the United States should provide military aid to the Contra rebels fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista government, despite three Oval Office addresses on the issue between March 1986 and February 1988."
President George H. W. Bush similarly failed to convince more than a third of Americans of the value of a deficit reduction deal he struck with Congress in 1990.
President George W. Bush took to the airwaves urging immigration reform with "path to citizenship," but failed to increase public support for such a plan from pre-speech levels.
President Bill Clinton's 1995 speech regarding a budget stand-off with a GOP-controlled Congress had the unintended effect of influencing public opinion that was evenly split before he spoke to drop for both his and the GOP approaches. Polls showed 39 percent disliked both plans.
Drew DeSilver, a senior writer for the Pew Research Center, pointed out an observation by Ezra Klein that "sometimes high-profile presidential speeches can actually impede governance, but turning an issue into a partisan test of strength." DeSilver says that may already be happening on the Syria issue, where Republican opposition has risen sharply in just a week from 40 percent to 70 percent.
Obama's case for targeted strikes at Syrian military installations to degrade the Bashar al-Assad regime’s capability to wage further chemical weapon attacks also has been upstaged by a Russian diplomatic move to persuade Syria to turn over its chemical weapons stash to international authorities for later destruction. The Russian initiative appears to have resulted from a casual remark by Secretary of State John Kerry. The Obama administration says it will consider the proposal, but the Russians now have attached a condition that the United States must foreswear any military action against Syria.
It doesn't shape up as a great night for Obama.