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SSM and the Bully Pulpit


A commenter brought up Amanda’s post about the effect of Obama coming out for same-sex marriage. (Digby has similar thoughts.) Both are responding to this Washington Post story about public-opinion and the response to Obama coming out in favor of SSM.

Well, let’s consider this. The Post has the trends in the data online (Question 23). In terms of support for SSM, there’s…nothing. 53% support it after Obama’s interview; 52% in March; 51% in July 2011; 53% in March 2011. There’s no evidence of any effect at all. So as the headline suggests, the evidence for the power of the BULLY PULPIT would have to be in the reduced opposition, which did drop from 43% to 39% between March and May. But particularly given the longer-term trend — opposition was 55% in 2004, 50% as recently as 2010 — this is pretty weak evidence. The 4 point drop in opposition might reflect an effect from Obama’s speech, but it also might reflect statistical noise combined with longer-term trends favoring same-sex marriage. The fact that support didn’t increase is further reason to be skeptical.

Of course, this one data point hardly disproves the theory that Obama’s support will have some effect. It’s possible that this could, like foreign policy, be an exception to the rule that presidential rhetoric doesn’t influence public opinion. Since what matters here is the position-taking, at least believing that there will be some effects doesn’t require transparently implausible theories about the electorate paying close attention to the details of presidential speeches (when even professional BULLY PULPIT obsessives can’t remember the details of presidential speeches.) Nonetheless, as a general rule using the bully pulpit can’t sway public opinion, so I won’t believe that Obama’s interview will significantly increase support for same-sex marriage unless the data clearly shows otherwise. As of now, it doesn’t; hopefully Amanda and Digby will be proven right in the future.

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  • david mizner

    There’s polling evidence suggesting that President Obama’s position is swaying opinion among African-Americans.


    The increase in support toward gay marriage was mainly fueled by increasing support for it among African Americans, who now narrowly support the issue 42 percent to 41 percent. In their November survey, Public Policy Polling found that black voters overwhelmingly opposed gay marriage 52 percent to 34 percent.

    This change in support among black voters reflects similar findings in North Carolina. After President Barack Obama publicly announced his support of gay marriage, Public Policy Polling found that 27 percent of black voters supported gay marriage, up from 20 percent in a May 6 poll taken three days before President Obama made his announcement.

    This is a pretty specific case for several reasons and could be an exception that proves the rule, but the movement seems to be real. He’s also inspired others — Colin Powell, Jim Clyburn, and Steny Hoyer — to come out of the closet. I wouldn’t be surprised if history books treated President Obama’s step as a Pivotal Event.

    • Charlie Sweatpants

      “He’s also inspired others — Colin Powell, Jim Clyburn, and Steny Hoyer — to come out of the closet.”

      And don’t forget the NAACP. I doubt there’s reliable data on how many elected officials, aspiring elected officials, and prominent people/organizations generally that used or will use Obama’s speech as cover to come out in favor, but that strikes me as the effect that’s most likely to tilt more states to recognize marriage equality. Washington State still has that thing on the ballot this year, and Obama’s pretty popular there, so this can only help. There are a lot of other reliably blue states with anti-equality laws or amendments, and this will hopefully push plenty of them in the right direction.

    • SP

      Also MD, where there’s a referendum that Obama might have flipped to the pro-marriage side. Blacks went from 39-56 opposed to 55-36 support.

      • JRoth

        I’m sure that’s entirely in line with polling trends. Let’s see, there were 2 months between the two sets of polls, so I’d imagine that polling from last November would show 87 to -4 opposition. I’ll get back to you after I do a little research.

    • Given the overall high opinion African Americans have of Obama though, this would pretty clearly be the exception that proves the rule with respect to what you can do with the bully pulpit.

      • kth

        +1. If there’s another issue on which Obama differs from a constituent group among whom he enjoys 90% favorability numbers, then by all means he should pound that bully pulpit into splinters.

    • joe from Lowell

      I wouldn’t be surprised if history books treated President Obama’s step as a Pivotal Event.

      Me neither; history books are like that. Did you know that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War with a single speech in Berlin?

  • Scott Lemieux

    I agree — if this holds up it would be powerful evidence that this is an exception.

    • Yes, this is the exception. So the proof is that Obama simply can’t move things except when he can. Therefore, when he does use the “bully pulpit” and it works that simply means this time is an exception. He was right not to comeout for anything else, because that would have been a political mistake. And any way that wouldn’t have done anything.

      “When the facts change, I change my mine. What do you do sir?”

      • rea

        There is a difference between conceding that a presidential speach can affect public opinon on an issue and conceding that a pesidential speach can get pending legislation through an unfriendly Congress. I’m willing to make the former concession, but not the latter.

        • L2P

          Those are two sides of the same coin, aren’t they?

          One reason to focus on whether the bully pulpit can move public opinion is that if public opinion moves in favor of an issue, an unfriendly congress will no longer be unfriendly towards that issue. Maybe the legislation fails the first time through, but there’s another pass the next cycle.

          • Except that there’s no evidence that public opinion has that sort of direct influence on the actions of Congress in the short term.

          • Hogan

            Are there examples of that?

            • JRoth

              Gee, are laws all the same as they were 20 years ago?

              Did anyone ever try to pass a health care law before?

              How many passes did it take to get functional Civil Rights Acts? What changed, corporate spending on the issue, or public opinion?

              This is why no one takes your argument seriously – because it reduces itself to absurdity: Presidential rhetoric never moves public opinion, except when it does; public opinion never affects Congressional behavior, expect when it does; Congress never changes directions, except when it does.

              • Hogan

                No one is saying that long-term change in public opinion doesn’t happen, just that presidential speechifying is a very minor driver of those changes.

                And none of your examples fits what L2P was describing, so shove it or learn to read.

              • mark f

                ACA passed because successive presidents kept talking about how awesome it would be, which made it enormously popular among the American people who in turn forced an overwhelmingly pliant Congress to pass it with nary a whimper of dissent.

              • Scott Lemieux

                “…public opinion never affects Congressional behavior Congress never changes directions, except when it does.”

                [Cites omitted]

        • DrDick

          I would generally agree with this with the caveat that shifting public opinion can, if the shift is large enough, affect legislative votes.

          • That seems like a chicken-and-egg conclusion though. A large enough shift in public opinion can change Congressional opinion in two ways:

            1.) It’s so large as to be bi-partisan, such that there’s overwhelming support for it in Congress.

            2.) The shift is large and people care about it enough to make it a crucial voting issue and the makeup of Congress changes as a result.

            So in the event that there’s a large public opinion shift that is resisted by one of the two parties and isn’t a big enough deal to the public to cause that party to suffer huge electoral losses, I don’t see any way in which it functions to change Congressional votes.

            • DrDick

              I think it can move fence sitters and those whose support for either side is soft (without changing the makeup of Congress). Congress critters can and do read polling data and seldom deliberately vote in ways likely to negatively impact their re-election (though they are often stupid and/or delusional). It is not going to move the firmly committed on either side and the effects are more on the margins.

      • I’m willing to hazard a guess that if you had posited a hypothetical situation where a bloc of reliable members of your party were a bit out of step with the party’s mainstream on an issue and asked what effect a President who was wildly popular with that bloc taking that position publicly might have on them, that Scott probably would have allowed that there was a reasonable chance that the President could have affected some level of change in opinions there.

        Now, as to the other 99% of cases…

      • Scott Lemieux

        Therefore, when he does use the “bully pulpit” and it works that simply means this time is an exception.

        When virtually every other attempt fails, I think it’s safe to declare it an exception. (And note that there’s no real evidence that it’s worked even this time.)

        • Hogan

          If it fails, that just means he wasn’t really trying.

          • mark f

            Strawman! OBot!!! Reconciliation anyone? Where’s the executive order?!?! LBJ did it! How come Obama hasn’t shown his cock to Jim DeMint?!?!

            • Hogan

              You left out the Platinum Coin of Recovery.

              • JRoth

                I love that this formulation requires thinking that Brad DeLong is a wild-eyed fool who doesn’t understand anything about the workings of government or the economy. Good job, guys!

                • Hogan

                  I love that your comment requires not understanding what DeLong was talking about, nor what he was saying about what he was talking about. Hint: raising the debt ceiling doesn’t create jobs. But do carry on. I’s not like you actually give a shit what arguments people outside your head are making.

                • mark f

                  Do you have the link where Brad DeLong wrote that Obama dropping trou and flashing a $1,000,000,000,000 coin would solve all economic problems forever? Because that sounds like one nutty ride.

              • Pseudonym

                I must have missed that memo. Enlighten me?

          • joe from Lowell

            If it fails, that just means he wasn’t really trying.

            Throughout 2009-2010, I was told that Obama wasn’t using THE BULLY PULPIT on health care reform and DADT. All he did was give “a few” speeches and highlight them in the State of the Union Address. That doesn’t count; he wasn’t trying nearly hard enough.

            Now, he’s answered a question in an interview.

      • Richard

        It looks like Obama changed the sentiment among African-Americans and no one else (if you look at all the polling data). Very unusual example of the effect of the bully pulpit.

        Great that it looks like this happening but I dont see any data that would indicate that his stance would change any other portion of the electorate or any other issue even among African-Americans

        • joe from Lowell

          It looks like Obama changed the sentiment among African-Americans

          And the polling firm says the results of the subgroup are unreliable because of an extremely small sample size.

          This conversation is extremely premature, and relies on very thin evidence.

          • Scott Lemieux

            Right. As I said, I’m open to the possibility that this is an exception. But as of now the evidence about increased support among African-Americans is shaky and evidence of a net gain in support for SSM is essentially non-existent.

            • Richard

              I dont disagree that the evidence is not strong right now..
              But there are preliminary indications that this might be the case. And while it is not evidence at all, this feels right to me. Obama is hugely popular among African-Americans, individuals and groups are chaning their mind right and left over the last few weeks and the African-American sentiment on gay marriage was much more conservative than its sentiment on most other social issues. If further polling and voting shows a change in sentiment, it will likely be clear that the galvanizing moment came from Obama’s change of positon.

            • Pseudonym

              From my distant perspective as an unenlightened white guy, I’d guess that Obama is probably the most influential and popular leader among African-Americans since the era of Martin Luther King Jr., so if there were an issue for which the bully pulpit might actually have tangible influence, the AA perspective on SSM might be it. I certainly hope so. But I don’t see this having much carryover to the public option, for example.

    • njorl

      I wouldn’t go that far. When I think of people calling for the use of the bully pulpit, I think of presidents urging people to put pressure on their congressional representitives so that a bill can pass one or both houses.

      Small movement on public opinion in the short term isn’t that meaningful. It has never been in doubt that a president can sway public opinion by a few points in the short term. Presidential candidates get a bump from their conventions which goes away quickly. It has also never been in doubt that sitting congressmen feel safe ignoring small, short-term changes in public opinion.

      It has also never been in doubt that a concerted effort by many high-ranking public figures over a prolonged period (years) can change public opinion significantly in the long term. But that isn’t “the bully pulpit”.

  • Ronnie P

    I would think that Obama’s support would have more of a long term effect, which isn’t the same thing as the bully pulpit.

    BTW, is it now impossible for future Dem Presidential candidates to oppose SMS? Certainly they’d be conspicuous.

    • njorl

      SMS? Same-Marriage-Sex has always been approved. The question is whether a candidate also supports Other-Marriage-Sex. Like legallizing pot, I don’t think we’ll see anyone come out for that openly for a while, though some support it secretly.

    • Scott Lemieux

      There is definitely an agenda-setting effect here. Obama has effectively committed the national Democratic party to support SSM.

      • JRoth

        Interestingly, there was already talking of adding it to the party platform, iirc. That was shaping up to be a controversy, and now it will be fait accompli.

        • joe from Lowell

          now it will be fait accompli.

          I hope you’re right, but I don’t share your confidence.

          • mark f

            I don’t know; according to Mizner, Hoyer and Clyburn have now expressed support. That hopefully indicates that pretty much the whole of the Democratic congressional caucus is on board. But admittedly I don’t know how the DNC platform is crafted; it may be that more conservative state-level committees have some input.

    • ajay

      is it now impossible for future Dem Presidential candidates to oppose SMS?

      Hillary Clinton, for one, has been strongly in favour for ages. http://textsfromhillaryclinton.tumblr.com/

  • Scott P.

    I wouldn’t say that the bully pulpit can’t sway opinion. It can sway opinion for those already on your side, to some degree. The problem is that it often has the opposite effect on your opponents.

    If you look at the cross-tabs, support for SSM has increased among Democrats, and decreased among Republicans.

    The flaw in bully pulpit thinking is the belief that it results in a consistent, positive shift in opinion in your favor. Not that it can’t work among a subgroup.

  • c u n d gulag

    Maybe someone much more resourceful, and statistically, than me can look into this?

    Can anyone find the polling numbers for something else radical, like when, in 1948, President Harry S Truman’s signed Executive Order 9981 ordering the integration of the armed forces shortly after World War II?

    That’s about as close as I can come to something comparable to what President Obama did.

    LBJ signed laws, so I’m not sure that’s comparable to what Truman or Obama did.

    And while Obama really didn’t really do anything with SSM, he did sign laws ending DADT.

    Maybe there are better analogies than those, and I can’t think of them.


    • John

      Isn’t Kennedy’s civil rights address from 1963 widely credited for rallying non-southern white opinion behind support for a civil rights bill?

      I know we’re not ever supposed to give Kennedy credit for anything anymore, but that’s certainly the standard narrative. It certainly seems like a comparable case.

  • Also too, Digby’s post is just blindingly stupid for the pure reactionary aspect of it. I mean, she pulls a quote that references a six year trend in favor of SSM, but doesn’t even consider that a speed bump in the road to trumpeting the almighty bully pulpit!

    So yeah, thanks for the regular reminder not to start reading that site again.

    • Tcaalaw

      Clearly you hate women. [/snark]

  • Too much of the postgame “this proves Obama should use the bully pulpit more” and “progressives should take cues from the LGBT activists” commentary obscures obvious differences between this issue and others. The key ones would seem to be that a) corporations and Wall Street aren’t going to run issue ads against the president for this, and b) the issue has no day-to-day implications for the vast majority of people. Unless people are intimating that Obama coming out for an increase in the gas tax would cause people to be swayed to his side, you’re mostly just talking about the unique space that the SSM issue occupies and not much else.

    • Stated differently, there is a lot of credit due to LGBT activism for the years it took to set the table for an announcement like this to be politically possible. But part of this activism involved getting tons of big rich donors behind the cause. Support for SSM has always risen with incomes.

      These facts don’t play a small role, so it’s not sensible to just carelessly bound from this issue to OWS/climate change/single payer.

  • joe from Lowell

    We’re talking about an individual poll, right?

    An individual poll whose authors state that the results for African-Americans are unreliable because of a very small sample size.

    Drawing conclusions from individual polls is a sucker’s game.

    I’d also like to point out that the sum total of the BULLY PULPIT here is an answer in one interview. Why are the people who chastised Obama for not using the BULLY PULPIT on DADT – all he did was highlight it during his election campaign and in two SOTU speeches – citing one interview as an example of the BULLY PULPIT?

  • joe from Lowell

    This HuffPo story contains a lot more data, showing longer-term trends, including among African-Americans.

    The big jump, among the populace at larger and African-Americans in particular, happened between 2008 and 2011. Gallup’s 2012 result, from just after the President’s statement, was actually lower than its 2011 result.

  • scott

    Good Lord – this man simply cannot be swayed under any circumstances from his unyielding adherence to the Bystander Theory of the Presidency. Thought for the day: is being president kind of like being that metaphorical tree in the forest that falls without making a sound?

    • Scott Lemieux

      OK — what’s your evidence that Obama has made SSM more popular?

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