Now, don't get us wrong. President Obama sounds presidential.
He can be a keen and insightful public speaker. Occasionally his speeches, such as his famous address on racial issues in Philadelphia in 2008, are for-the-history-books inspirational. But some observers say that day-in and day-out, President Obama does not hold a candle, oratorically speaking, to Candidate Obama — that what you heard before the election is not what you are getting after the election.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama, teleprompter to his side, spoke at the White House on Aug. 11 to mark his signing of the Manufacturing Enhancement Act. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk is behind him.
President Obama, teleprompter to his side, spoke at the White House on Aug. 11 to mark his signing of the Manufacturing Enhancement Act. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk is behind him. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Since Obama's election, a parade of critics has opined that as president he seems to be more of a professor and less of a poet when addressing the public. And they say that though he may be trying to explain the complicated issues of the day in a simple manner, the way he talks to his constituents may be creating more problems than solutions. After all, desperate times call for inspirational oratory.
You may have noticed that when Obama spoke recently in Florida of the recovery of the Gulf of Mexico's ecology and economy, and when he expressed his support for a mosque in Lower Manhattan at Friday night's Iftar dinner at the White House, he often began a thought with the words "now" or "so." This oratorical habit pops up in other speeches, too.
Take a look at his remarks at the Aug. 11 signing of the Manufacturing Enhancement Act of 2010. It's a no-big-deal 10-minute speech of 20 paragraphs. After welcoming people to the White House, Obama began seven of the next 11 paragraphs with the words "now" or "so." For example:
— "Now, we knew from the beginning that reversing the damage done by the worst financial crisis and the deepest recession in generations would take some time — more time than anyone would like … "
— "Now, the challenges we face have been confirmed not just by the economic data that we've seen since last spring ... "
— "So while we have fought back from the worst of this recession, we've still got a lot of work to do … "
According to the transcript of his Aug. 9 speech in Austin on higher education and the economy, Obama started paragraphs with the word "so" nine times and with the word "now" six times. Speaking on behalf of senatorial candidate Alexi Giannoulias at an Aug. 5 rally in Chicago, the president began paragraphs with "now" six times and "so" five times.
And because many of the points that the president wants to make begin with "now" or "so" — and the occasional "look" or "let's be clear" — the listener does often feel like a student in Professor Obama's political science class. Plus, when a speaker begins sentences and paragraphs with a pedantic tone, it can make it very hard for him to achieve grand eloquence.
The words "now" and "so," says Elvin Lim, who teaches government at Wesleyan University, "are examples of rhetorical pivots necessary for governance in a partisan era. Obama likes to say, 'Now, there are those on the right who say ... ' because he knows the art of governance requires rhetorical pre-emption, especially in our partisan times."
Inevitable Or 'A Serious Weakness'?
Lim interviewed more than three dozen presidential speechwriters for his 2008 book, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush. He says Obama's professorial tone "is a serious attempt to address the other side of any argument."
Some of Obama's supporters prefer the president to remain in poetic/campaign mode, Lim says, "such as when he goes to, say, a car plant in Michigan and justifies his bail-out policies and mocks Republicans for preferring to do nothing." (Obama called bail-out opponents "the just-say-no crowd.") Such rhetoric buttresses the supporters' belief that Obama "has majorities big enough in Congress to not bother with the other side of the aisle."
The problem, Lim says, is that such a view "misunderstands the requirements of presidential leadership, as opposed to campaigning. There is no doubt that Obama has been less successful as a presidential speaker than as a candidate speaker, but this is a structural inevitability of American politics."
Earlier this year, Michael Gerson wrote in The Washington Post that "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."
Gerson, who was chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006, spoke of Obama's "workmanlike utterances" and "explanatory rather than inspirational" speeches to Congress and the public.
Obama "doesn't seem to emote any real urgency or anger," Matthew Dowd, a former Republican strategist who has spoken favorably of the president, told The New York Times last year. "So at times it comes across as a bit distant and intellectual." And in the same article, Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant, said of Obama that "sometimes his confidence makes him seem flat."
Sarah Palin has also weighed in on Obama's tweedy prose: "We need a commander in chief, not a law professor standing at the lectern," the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and potential presidential contender told her supporters earlier this year.
The president seems to know about the professorial perception. In an interview with ABC-TV in January, he told Diane Sawyer that "when your poll numbers are high, you're a genius. If my poll numbers are low, then I'm cool and cerebral and cold and detached." Also that month, he conceded to ABC's George Stephanopoulos that "a mistake of mine" in 2009 was focusing too much on "this provision, or that law" and not enough on "speaking directly to the American people."
Perhaps bristling at the growing notion that he is too academic, Obama told NBC in June — when he was questioned about his handling of the Gulf oil crisis — that "I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they, potentially, have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick."
Obama's lack of inspirational oratory may partially explain why his approval numbers are down. According to a mid-August USA Today/Gallup poll, a majority of Americans disapprove of the way Obama is handling many key issues — including health care, the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the deficit, the environment, the economy and immigration.
Perhaps he needs to invigorate the American people as well as inform. To exhilarate as well as explain. To touch as well as teach.
"There is no doubt that he has the capacity and capability to inspire," says Martin J. Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University. "In my judgment, he has not yet found the right themes or focus. He should be talking far more about values and character and ethics and national self-understanding and less about policy details and the political process."
Obama, Medhurst says, is "one of the most skilled communicators we have had in the White House."
Medhurst adds that the president does sound professorial. "This is not, of course, unprecedented," Medhurst says. "Woodrow Wilson, who was a professor before going into politics, sounded much the same way. Speech is an index of thought. Obama speaks the way he does because he thinks the way he does. He thinks like a law professor, which is not surprising since he was trained in law and once taught law."
Candidates Just Need To Sound Good; Presidents Must Do More
As for the rhetorical tics of using "now" and "so," Medhurst points out that all presidents have their idiosyncrasies. "Reagan often started sentences with 'Well ... .' Nixon often said, 'and I want to make this particularly — or perfectly — clear ... .' Both Truman and Johnson spoke of themselves in the third person. Eisenhower could wax eloquent on the 'spiritual' strength of the American people."
As candidate, says Elvin Lim, Obama "only needed to sound good. The major product he was selling was himself, and eloquence was part of it. There was little need for details, and the only action his words attempted to inspire was the act of voting."
As president, Lim continues, Obama now has to sell not only himself, but a legislative program as well. He can no longer speak in generalities, such as "change," to sell specific legislative products. "And he can't just dive in for the median voter, because he's made promises to his liberal base while also using ambiguous language to get center-right voters on board with him during the election," Lim says. "So now he has to explain and justify his departure from his campaign positions and promises to his base, while also convincing those that didn't vote for him that now as president of all the people — and not just the standard-bearer of one party — what he is proposing legislatively is worthy of their support."
So, Lim concludes, while Obama only had to campaign before he was elected, now he has to govern. "And poetry is of much less use to him as president."
Unless, perhaps, the president is also a candidate for a second term. In that case, the public may again see the rhetorically inspirational man who won the election in 2008.