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January 14, 2010

WaPo: Where has Obama's inspiring oratory gone?

Topics: Police Brutality and Corruption

Now, even the Washington Post is recognizing what most Americans have been seeing - along with Obama's declining public standing in the polls has come a decline in his rhetorical inspiration and reputation, with his greatest rhetorical failures coming when the country needed inspiration the most - at times of crisis.

Here are some excerpts from Michael Gerson's piece:

[...] The swift rise of Barack Obama was primarily a literary phenomenon. His accomplishments did not come on the Senate floor; they came at Barnes & Noble. His two autobiographies, along with his 2004 speech at the Democratic convention, raised expectations of a rhetorical golden age. One early profile in New York magazine referred to 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)."

But Obama went from this exaggerated expectation to his current workmanlike utterances on health care and Afghanistan without an intervening period of remarkable eloquence. His acceptance speech was flat and typical. His inauguration was an extraordinarily historic moment -- which went uncelebrated by a comparably historic utterance. Obama's speeches to Congress and the American people have generally been explanatory rather than inspirational. His demeanor at West Point -- in a speech arguing for new sacrifices in the Afghanistan war -- was so stone-cold sober that one was left longing for happy hour.

[...] Obama's largest rhetorical failure has come at times of crisis -- when a president's words matter most, and the time to craft them is most limited. 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).

Obama's model, instead, is the coolness of Coolidge. It is old-fashioned. It may even be admirable. It is hard to call it effective. With every speech, a realization grows: A president lacking in drama may also be lacking in inspiration. (Read it all)

As Gerson notes in his piece, what was once universally recognized as Obama's greatest political strength - his oratory - now seems a serious weakness. What Gerson either fails to say or purposefully avoids saying, is that the rhetoric and emotion we saw during the campaign was all campaign style and stagecraft, with no substance. None of it was heartfelt, he was saying anything and promise everything to get elected (for example, the C-Span promise, transparency, and bi-partisanship, all of which disappeared the day he took office). And the lack of intensity we now see has nothing to do with Obama's tanking poll numbers; the detachment and lack of intensity we are now seeing relates to a lack of character and purpose beyond his political agenda, and it was in fact there all along.

Posted by Richard at January 14, 2010 7:39 AM

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