Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Obama Speech Wars, Continued

In case you missed it, last week Vital Speeches guru David Murray took to the Huffington Post to issue a fairly stern finger-wagging to the all the PR and speech pros who are second-guessing President Obama's communication skills these days -- "Knock It Off" read the headline. Murray was quick to acknowledge that Obama has made some serious mistakes. But he warned against the limits and dangers of a common corrective many critics are prescribing, a major address to re-set the story of his presidency, along the lines of Jimmy Carter's infamous "Malaise Speech."
We can argue over the drinking table about how Obama should have framed his presidency at the outset. But I'm afraid that the only way he can play once-upon-a-time at this late stage is if there's a shocking disaster -- financial, natural or ballistic -- that's profound and terrifying enough to make Americans really willing to sit like children and hear a simple story of true heroes, real villains and the proverbial but elusive "story we can all believe in."
Well, it didn't take long for the piling on to resume -- most notably with a piece by former Clinton speechwriter and current West Wing Writers principal Jeff Shesol that ran earlier this week on the Daily Beast, under the headline Obama Needs a New Tune. Shesol's main argument is that Obama's post-partisan message, which resonated so well during the 2008 campaign and still ostensibly polls well in a vacuum, is ill-suited to this hyper-partisan moment.
. . . . Obama’s renewed campaign against partisanship serves mainly to remind us of one of our, and no doubt his, greatest disappointments: the ugly immutability of Washington, and the Republicans’ stubborn refusal to listen to reason. As an opening argument for his reelection, the president can do better than “put country ahead of party.” Not only is it a weak, vain hope, it is a fundamental misreading of what’s wrong with Washington. To paraphrase, this time, Michael Dukakis (something I do against my better judgment), this election is not about partisanship. It’s about ideology.
With that in mind, Shesol said, it's high time for Obama to choose sides -- not with a Malaise redux, but a more consistent differentiation. "[He] does not need to become a fire-breathing, populist parody of Franklin Roosevelt, as some left-leaning critics suggest. But to win a second term he has to sharpen the contrast, if not his rhetoric. He has to make it unmistakably clear that the Republican Party’s 'game' -- its endgame -- is not just to win the next election, but to undo much of the progress of the past century, and to rewrite some of our most cherished, basic assumptions about what it means to be an American. Then he needs to tell us what he plans to do about it."

Okay, speech pros: Which side do you come down on? Is there too much carping about the President's messaging? Or not enough edge/clarity/consistency to it?

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