When Speeches Matter (and when they don’t)

President Obama’s speech today on the launch of Healthcare.gov and the Affordable Care Act more generally was nice but pointless in the grand scheme of things. I think Ezra Klein summed it up nicely —

In the end, though, Obama’s speech doesn’t matter. Either the Web site will be fixed in a reasonable time frame, and the law will work, or it won’t be fixed and the law will begin to fail. The Affordable Care Act is no longer a political abstraction. It’s the law, and it will be judged not on how well politicians message it, but how much it does to improve people’s lives.

— except that he leaves out some other possibilities. Number 3 is: The web site may be fixed and the law still fails. Number 4 is: The web site continues to fail but the law itself survives. My guess is that #4 is the least likely, and #3 is the most likely. The point is that speeches and, to a lesser extent, web sites are not definitive to whether the underlying economic forces of policy will work or not. There are countless cases in history of bad economics being forced to work, sometimes for centuries, on pain of death. Name a price control that worked in the economic sense, yet plenty continue to be operational in the legal sense.

Add the Obamacare launch speech to the long list of presidential speeches that meant nothing. That’s not a suggestion that Obama shouldn’t have spoken, though sometimes less is in fact more. No, in this case, saying nothing in the face of policy failure is not an option. Hence the odd mix of tones: it was a condemnation; it was a celebration.

Presidential speeches matter in the sense they either (1) educate or (2) persuade. Obama’s speech fit neither category. It wasn’t quite the mess of Carter’s scolding of the American public in the 1979 Malaise speech. But it wasn’t educational like, for example, Reagan’s address to the nation on the economy on February 5, 1981 in which he explained inflation using a handful of coins. Nor was it persuasive like Bill Clinton’s speech in support of NAFTA at the JFK presidential library twenty years ago.

I suspect the most meaningful speeches, like the one that Obama gave at the 2004 Democratic national convention, bring people together rather than dividing them apart. It would be nice to hear more of those.

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