Obama's Leadership Brings Few Hails To The Chief

Republican presidential candidates are working to position themselves for November, but the man currently in the oval office seems to be losing his footing. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Ted Widmer, director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, about presidential leadership and recent criticism of President Barack Obama's leadership style.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JACKI LYDEN, host: As we just heard, Republican presidential candidates are working to position themselves for November of 2012. But some say the man currently in the Oval Office seems to be losing his footing. Just over a week ago, Standard & Poor's lowered the U.S. credit rating. On Monday, President Obama spoke to the nation.

President BARACK OBAMA: Markets will rise and fall, but this is the United States of America. No matter what some agency may say, we've always been, and always will be, a AAA country.

LYDEN: This speech brought forth a torrent of commentary on the president's performance and his ability - or not - to outline a strong program to move the country forward. And that's coming from his supporters. Joining us now is Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, and a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton. Thank you very much for coming in.

TED WIDMER: My pleasure, Jacki.

LYDEN: What's wrong with the speech that we just heard from President Obama? When I say he was also criticized by his supporters, I mean, he was. You can hardly read a pundit without saying that Obama is weaker, stumbling, doesn't seem to know what he wants to say. He was trying to reassure America, but it didn't matter.

WIDMER: The soundbite was bad. It didn't offer a compelling counter-argument. It just said: That downgrade hurt our feelings, but we're still a very important country in the world. It just wasn't dramatic enough. It didn't have enough facts behind it. It hardly did anything to move the conversation forward.

LYDEN: Did you note that change in the president's tone? On Thursday in Holland, Michigan, he attacked Congress, didn't he?

OBAMA: It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. You've got to let Congress know. You've got to tell them you've had enough of the theatrics. You've had enough of the politics. Stop sending out press releases; start passing some bills that we all know will help our economy right now. That's what they need to do. They've got to hear from you.

(Soundbite of applause)

WIDMER: Yes. That was refreshing. He's frustrated and maybe even angry. But he was in attack mode, and that was good. One of the frustrating things for many of his supporters during the negotiations over the debt ceiling was his refusal to go into attack mode. And he even over and over again, said he understood the other side's need to disagree with him. And that was a troubling negotiating strategy. I think he might have received more of what he wanted had he threatened the other side a little bit more effectively.

LYDEN: If you were his speechwriter now, what kind of speech would you craft for the moment?

WIDMER: I think we all need a kind of Frank Capra narrative. In one movie after another, Mr. Deeds or Mr. Smith goes to Washington. There is a hero who speaks up in a way that's very compelling and very honest. And I think we need a story that restores our faith in the U.S. government and doesn't make it seem, by itself, a negative force in American life.

LYDEN: You know, it's interesting what you say about story. Stories are really important for administrations to tell.

WIDMER: They absolutely are. They were important in the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and in, really, every great communication strategy - including Ronald Reagan's - core narratives were very, very important. And I think President Obama has done a lot of good in his few years. He probably has done more than most people realize, but there hasn't been a successful core narrative that's gotten out there.

LYDEN: Ted Widmer is the director of the John Carter Brown Memorial Library in Providence, Rhode Island, and the editor of "American Speeches," a collection of presidents' speeches from the Library of America. He joined us from New York. Ted Widmer, thank you.

WIDMER: My pleasure, Jacki.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.