Americans have high hopes for the president's jobs speech tonight. They shouldn't. Statistical evidence shows that democratic leaders have little impact on growth.
If politicians of various persuasions can't agree on the content of tonight's job speech (much less its scheduling), they can at least agree on one thing: It's a big deal. Obama, unsurprisingly, thinks his speech matters. So do congressional Democrats, who are urging him to "be bold," and congressional Republicans, who are already starting to spin the post-mortems, not to mention plan job speeches of their own. And then you have the American people -- six in ten of whom "now disapprove of Obama's work on jobs and the economy" -- who eagerly await a fresh round of plans and promises.
A great presidential orator delivering a major policy address is an occasion to expect fireworks. But how much does presidential leadership on economic issues actually matter?
It's an old question with old and competing theories to answer it. To pick two pretentious examples from the 19th century: There is, at one extreme, the Marxist theory of historical materialism, in which people are merely the swept along by underlying forces that are "independent of their will." (The obligatory dinner-party Marx quote: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.") From the same century but the opposite corner, there is Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle's "Great Man" theory of history, for which "The history of the world is but the biography of great men."