Michael Gerson's latest Washington Post column this week critiquing President Obama's rhetorical performance in his first year in office is a must-read for speech groupies and political followers alike. The former Bush speechwriter (and Gotham friend) gives a particularly thoughtful voice to an increasingly common complaint about the Speechifier-in-Chief — that Obama's speeches as president have not been nearly as inspiring or effective as his campaign oratory. More important, although it was not Gerson's intent, his analysis also explains why the Obama speech mythology and the Olympian expectations it created were both unfair to him and unsustainable in office.
Gerson uses that myth as the peg for his argument, noting early on that New York Magazine had set up Obama as "our national oratorical superhero — a honey-tongued Frankenfusion of Lincoln, Gandhi, Cicero, Jesus, and all our most cherished national acronyms (MLK, JFK, RFK, FDR)." He goes on to write that Obama's rhetoric as president, by comparison, has been workman-like, unmemorable, and unmoving, pointing to two of Obama's highest profile addresses (his inaugural and his fall Afghanistan speech) as examples. Even worse, Gerson says, Obama's cool-headed, intellectual style has too often come off as simultaneously too academic and arrogant, even veering "toward messianism."
But Obama's biggest rhetorical failure, Gerson argues, has come in times of crisis, "when a president's words matter most." Here's the linchpin of his case:
His reactions to the Fort Hood murders and the Christmas Day attack were oddly disconnected from the emotions of the country he represents. His speech at Fort Hood was strong on paper but delivered with all the passion of remarks to the Chamber of Commerce. His recent White House speech on the terrorist threat was bureaucratic and bloodless. Both grief and resolve seem beyond his rhetorical range. People once thought Obama could sound eloquent reading the phone book. Now, whatever the topic, it often sounds as though he is.
His defenders, once again, elevate this into a virtue. He is an emotionally disciplined grown-up. But at least since Reagan, the rhetorical expectations of an American president have included not only mental toughness but empathy -- the ability to wear the nation's emotions on his sleeve. People want their president to be both the father and the mother of his country -- a talent shared by politicians as diverse as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (whose speeches I once helped write).This is where Gerson's argument hits dead-center — and also ultimately breaks down. I could not agree more about the negative impact of Obama's constant bloodlessness. Indeed, I have long believed that his penchant for detachment was a double-edged sword, reassuring and confidence-inspiring in many cases, but robotic and distancing when taken too far. A modern president can't maintain a connection with the public, especially in a time of war and economic calamity, without projecting empathy, without people believing the guy in the Oval Office gets "it" and gets "them." But to somehow suggest that Obama or his style has changed since he became president, which is the implication of Gerson and many of the president's critics on the right and left, is as much a myth as Zeus himself.
Sure, some of Obama's rhetoric in the campaign was nifty, lofty and aspirational, particularly when he was speaking at big rallies. But if you look back at the range of his speeches — particularly the ones that made his reputation (the 2004 Democratic convention, Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner, the Philadelphia race speech) — their essence and resonance was clearly more intellectual than emotional. It was the power and the clarity of his arguments that moved people, especially voters in the middle who would not automatically swoon over his anti-war message, to believe Obama was the competent antidote to Bush they were seeking. Much of the "original thought" (as Gerson calls it) was packaged in hopeful language. But just as he is doing now, Obama was explaining throughout the campaign, and it turned out that a lot of voters liked being talked to like adults.
Also, despite the widespread hagiography around the pre-White House Obama's eloquence, his actual words were never all that dazzling or unforgettable then either. What's the most quoted line from his convention speech in 2004? "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America." Hardly original or best of Bartlett's material. It stuck because of the construct that followed, which was the smart articulation of a powerful sentiment that many Americans were feeling for some time and aching for a national leader to validate. And that has been the Obama effect ever since —a cumulative impression after he speaks (particularly among elites) that he understands our world and can help us navigate it.
The main difference today is not what Obama is saying, or how he's saying it, but the context in which he's speaking. In the campaign, Obama benefitted tremendously by comparison — first to Bush, and then to McCain, neither of whom could come close to the Democrat's verbal powers of persuasion (Gerson's Herculean efforts notwithstanding). Also, as Mario Cuomo famously reminded us, campaigns lend themselves to poetry. That was especially true for this past race, where Obama was such a unique, undefined figure, and it was so easy for voters to project their own aspirations onto him and cast him as a post-partisan prophet. Today, Obama's prime comparison point is not to any Republican rival but to his own campaign image, and it was inevitable, given the unrealistic expectations he was saddled with, that he would suffer from that judgment.
What's more, I tend to think Gerson gives short shrift to the extraordinary challenges Obama is facing as president. Forget about governing in prose — with two shooting wars going on, terrorists striking at the sanctity of Christmas, and 10 percent unemployment, sometimes it seems he has to govern in Prozac. But seriously, it's just not an environment conducive to inspiration, both in term of the gravity of the different crises we're living through and the personal strain that the president must be feeling. In that sense, it's hardly surprising, given Obama's well-established cerebral nature, that he has erred on the side of coolness and simplicity in his speeches and public presence so far.
That doesn't deny the heart of Gerson's Tin Man criticism. But I would just suggest, in another nod to Oz, that we dispense with the Straw Man comparisons and judge Obama by a more relevant (and less relative) standard — what he has done for us lately.