Why Obama’s Speeches Aren’t Very Good Anymore

Michael Gerson has out a piece today professing surprise that Obama’s speeches have become a weak point. Here’s Gerson:

In the most unexpected development of his presidency, what was once universally recognized as Obama’s greatest political strength — his oratory — now seems a serious weakness.

…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.

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…But 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.

…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.

First of all, Barack Obama was very AVERAGE in the debates and wasn’t significantly better than (prepare to pretend to be shocked) Bush when he was off teleprompter. When he had time to do a prepared speech, Obama still wasn’t a GREAT speaker. What he excels at is the delivery. He has great voice tone, great cadence, and he’s good at soaring oratory. That said, Obama’s speeches were also always riddled with aery-faerie rhetoric and platitudes. He’s the oratorical equivalent of eating Chinese food: an hour later, you remember that it was pretty good food, but you’ve forgotten everything he said.

In a political campaign where people were sick to death of Republicans, weren’t very interested in policy specifics, and were more interested in who he was — the first black man who had a real chance to be President — rather than how he would do at the job, his style worked very well.

The problem he has now is that he’s actually in office and every situation doesn’t call for meaningless happy talk. Now, he can’t be all things to all people. He has to give speeches where he comes down on one side or the other. He has to actually take positions and defend them publicly. He does those things poorly and with a lot of lying baked in the cake.

Moreover, you have to consider that Obama is extremely over-exposed and it has caused people to become hip to his style. Instead of, “Wow, wasn’t that inspirational,” it’s “Oh great, this jackass is dancing around the issues again.” So what happens when you have a one trick pony and everyone has seen the trick? Well, you get columns like the one Michael Gerson wrote today.

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