Nate Silver had a interesting comment  earlier this week about the influence of the Occupy Wall Street protesters:

Observation: Occupy has had more success in “shifting the narrative” than either (i) Obama or (ii) the “Professional Left”.

See also a more detailed case for this from David Dayen. I’m mostly interested in the first part of that. I’m not completely certain he’s right; note that talk about deficits seems to have faded severely ever since the president started talking up his jobs bill nonstop. But it’s at least plausibly true, right?

The point that it suggests has to do with the real limits on the president’s ability to focus elite (or mass) conversation.

Now, in some ways the bully pulpit is both real and quite powerful. If presidents have something they want everyone to be thinking about and talking about, they are far more able to do it than anyone else in the political system. It’s not even close; the president can, if its important enough to him, still get carried live on the broadcast networks — and he frequently gets covered live on the cable nets. He has a whole press corps assigned to him, and a large staff who can amplify and spin his message, along with a party apparatus and same-party politicians and operatives who are often happy to stick to the message he chooses. So if the president really wants to drive attention to something, he has the means to do it.

It’s also true that among insiders, presidential mentions of an issue can have real consequences, because it signals that the president cares about it. So for example if the Senate is considering taking up a nominee, then a presidential mention might influence which nominee it will confirm.

However, there are real limits to all of this. You might have seen Elisabeth Rosenthal’s essay in the Sunday NYT on why climate change has largely disappeared as an issue. And no question, presidential rhetorical inattention is a part of that. Had Obama decided to devote the attention to global warming that he’s put into the economy this year, we can be fairly certain that her article would never have been written. But while presidential attention to climate would surely have “shifted the narrative,” it’s very unlikely that it could have produced legislative success. Nor is there any guarantee that the presidential attention, and therefore press attention, would have produced more people who agreed with him — indeed, there is research that suggests presidential attention produces polarized public opinion. And there are real opportunity costs, too; a president focused on climate can’t be also a president rhetorically focused on jobs. And there’s another cost, too. A president focused on an issue on which he can’t get results may hurt his reputation and prestige. After all, part of the advantage for Obama in his current jobs focus is how popular his positions are, both on what to do and how to pay for it.

The point is that while presidents certainly can affect what people are talking about, they need to make strategic choices — and after all, their goals are usually to either change policy or to get re-elected, not to affect what people are talking about. So while drawing attention to a neglected issue is certainly a useful thing for activists to do (although not necessarily more useful than nominating candidates dedicated to that issue), presidents just have other things that usually take priority.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.