I wrote one over at Plum Line yesterday about a Media Matters push to get people to lobby the broadcast networks to run more stories about climate. My argument was that it’s unlikely that such an effort would be successful, and that if the goal was more attention to climate, the more likely way to get results would be for activists to target politicians, and especially the president. Basically, the path going activists to parties to politicians to news coverage works better than the more direct activists to news coverage path.

After some pushback, I’m thinking that it wasn’t the smartest item I ever wrote. Not that I got it wrong, exactly, but just that my focus on the narrow question wasn’t really very helpful. So, I’m going with a long, rambling post that considers the more general issue from several different perspectives.

First, I agree with what Michael Grunwald tweeted: “Deeds>Words!” Along with a link to his argument (well, a short form of his argument) that “while it’s absolutely fair to complain that Obama doesn’t talk about climate change anymore, except at rallies when he’s firing up his liberal base, it’s also worth noting that he’s probably done more to prevent climate change than anyone else on the planet.” Leaving aside whether he’s correct about Obama, I think his general point is clearly correct: policy formation and implementation is more important than getting stuff into news broadcasts. The question is whether those things are independent of each other, but I think he’s right that the Obama case shows they are at least largely independent of each other. For better or worse, a lot of the press doesn’t cover policy, and so they can easily just miss important things that happen, especially at the regulatory level.

Second, digby raises a fair point about the bully pulpit:

I had thought the bully pulpit is not only useless, but often counter-productive, so this is a surprise to me. Ezra Klein explained it to us all in this New Yorker piece from 2012, wherein he outlined all the political science numbers-crunching that proves public opinion is fairly irrelevant to public policy and presidential rhetoric even more so. Indeed, the thesis says that while the president coming out publicly for a particular policy may be able to harden his own troops’ resolve from time to time, he also hardens the opposition against him, so government basically can only be effective through the use of backroom deals and inside the beltway politicking:


So, considering how well the obsession wit the deficit has worked to make it a top priority issue, I totally agree that the president should talk a lot about climate change. I do think it makes a difference and I think the very act of doing it repeatedly puts it on the agenda and gives it an urgency. Will he change climate change deniers minds? Doubtful. In fact, I agree that it may very well harden their opposition to any policies designed to prevent it, although it’s hard to see how they could be more hardened than they already are. But it could help persuade Democrats and Independents that this is something to which they need to pay attention and that’s a necessary first step. So start yammering Mr President!

See, this is where it gets tricky.

On the one hand: presidents can definitely get people talking about things, mainly by “agenda-setting” — that is, by getting the news media to talk about things.

On the other, Klein’s article was exactly right: it’s not clear to what effect all that agenda-setting is for. And it has the potential to backfire.

Digby argues that Barack Obama’s frequent public support of deficit reduction has had the consequence of pushing Democrats to become more likely to support deficit reduction in polls. That seems likely to me, but only because (with the president joining Republicans) there’s an elite consensus, or close to it, for deficit reduction. But that wouldn’t be the case on climate of course.

Moreover, and this gets back to Grunwald’s point: to what effect? Suppose that liberals pushed Obama to talk about climate more often, and it had the effects I predict: he would in fact respond to that pressure by talking about climate more often, and it would yield more news coverage. Suppose that digby is correct that as a consequence, climate concern among Democrats would go up in polling…suppose even that Obama could change peoples’ minds, so that the overall numbers on whether the government should do more on the environment tipped back towards the Democrats’ position.

OK, then what? Would legislation be more likely to get through the current Congress? Not that I can see. Would the EPA and other government agencies be more likely to adopt tough regulations? Not really, I don’t think; while public opinion might matter to them, relatively small shifts probably don’t.

Would relatively small shifts in polling make it more likely that climate would be a higher agenda item for Democrats in 2014, or 2016? Harder to say…maybe? And that would very much be (if you want action on climate) a valuable result. But I’m not sure that the news media/agenda setting portion of it is really a particularly efficient way of getting there. Why not just directly organize within nomination battles?

And yet…on the other, other, other hand: as far as I understand it, the data we have on public opinion and the bully pulpit are mainly about short-term effects, and especially the (non-) effects of attempting to move Congress on specific legislation by changing public opinion. I don’t think we know much, if anything (and I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong) about long-term effects, if any. I mean, we know that Ronald Reagan didn’t make US voters more conservative during his presidency…but I don’t think we know anything about what, if any, long-term effects he might have had either on specific issues or ideology in general — including effects concentrated within conservatives. Or, to put it the other way: we could have something here similar to campaign effects in which strong professional electioneering tends to cancel out; if one side saw the minimal effects results and decided to not campaign at all, we’re fairly certain that it would create a very large effect. If Democratic presidents preach liberal ideals it might not change any minds, but if they don’t, it might fail to “educate” a generation of Democratic activists.

I should wrap this up, but one more point. The holy grail on this, for climate activists, is to get mainstream conservatives (that is, non-crazy conservatives) to accept the scientific consensus on climate; if that happens, then it probably becomes relatively easy to get legislation done. Would agenda-setting through the media make that more likely? If it’s accomplished by having a Democratic president talk more about it?

And yet what if mainstream conservatives would never be open to legislation? In that case, the best hope is for climate to be at the top of the Democratic agenda the next time they win a landslide and hold Congress and the presidency. Would more stories in the national press make that more likely?

I don’t have answers to those questions. The main thing I would say is that the answers, from all we know from the research, are non-obvious. We really, really, should avoid any simplistic ideas about what presidents can do with their rhetoric…but should also be modest in what we know, and what it implies about what presidents should talk about.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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