Thursday, September 10, 2009

The great myth about Obama's soaring rhetoric

Ezra Klein creates a compelling formula to frame the drama of Obama's health care speech. The only problem is, it's completely untrue:
Barack Obama is considered a great speaker. But he's not typically been great at giving this kind of nuts-and-bolts policy speech. He's good at handling grand, sweeping topics. He's better at talking about how the arc of history bends towards justice than how the provisions of health-care reform bend the curve. During the campaign, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton were both more effective policy communicators than Obama. Particularly on health care.
In this speech, in fact, Obama needed to do the precise opposite of what he's best at. He needed to bring health-care reform down to earth rather than launch it into orbit. He needed to make it seem less dramatic and unknown. He needed to cast it not as change, but as improvement.
All of which he did.
Klein is terrific on policy (including, later in the same post, the policy specifics of this speech), but he's all wet on rhetoric (here at least). It's true that during the campaign Obama sometimes did not debate the specifics of policy with as much command of nuance as Clinton. But Obama is vastly better than Clinton -- and every other politician in America -- at articulating a strategic and conceptual framework for a set of policy specifics (often a laundry list as long as Hillary's). That's why he won the election.

He did it in March 2008 while delineating the dynamics of the financial crisis: pain trickled up. He did it a few days earlier in articulating a global strategy for defanging Islamic fundamentalism: The central front in the war on terror is not Iraq, and it never was...It is not too late to prevail in Afghanistan. But we cannot prevail until we reduce our commitment in Iraq. He did it in spades in his remarkable (and it seems temporarily forgotten) speech on the economy this past April (explaining why he did not move swiftly to nationalize giant banks): Governments should practice the same principle as doctors: first do no harm. So rest assured – we will do whatever is necessary to get credit flowing again, but we will do so in ways that minimize risks to taxpayers and to the broader economy.

Where Obama really takes off is where, having built the case for a set of specific policies, he frames those policies as a continuation of the mainstream of American history, an articulation of core American values. That's where the "bend the arc of history" language comes in, generally in the peroration. It's true that at times in '08 that rhetoric was untethered from a lot of policy specifics. But it was a long campaign. Regularly, Obama got down to brass tacks. As he did again last night.

We elected Obama because he repeatedly demonstrated the power of mind to formulate policy specifics as means to an end (as he cast the public option last night). This was not simply a matter of idealizing American history. He has given us many arresting formulations of the specific goals of specific policies -- and tactics. Some examples:

On the uses of soft power:
What lies in the heart of a child in Pakistan matters as much as the airplanes we sell her government. What's in the head of a scientist from Russia can be as lethal as a plutonium reactor in Yongbyon. What's whispered in refugee camps in Chad can be as dangerous as a dictator's bluster. These are the neglected landscapes of the 21st century, where technology and extremism empower individuals just as they give governments the ability to repress them; where the ancient divides of region and religion wash into the swift currents of globalization.
On rebalancing the economy:
today, for far too many Americans, [the American] dream is slipping away. Wall Street has been gripped by increasing gloom over the last nine months. But for many American families, the economy has effectively been in recession for the past seven years. We have just come through the first sustained period of economic growth since World War II that was not accompanied by a growth in incomes for typical families. Americans are working harder for less. Costs are rising, and it's not clear that we'll leave a legacy of opportunity to our children and grandchildren. That's why, throughout this campaign, I've put forward a series of proposals that will foster economic growth from the bottom up, and not just from the top down....we need to pursue policies that once again recognize that we are in this together.
On rebalancing U.S. foreign policy (in debate):
Look, over the last eight years, this administration, along with Senator McCain, have been solely focused on Iraq. That has been their priority. That has been where all our resources have gone.In the meantime, bin Laden is still out there. He is not captured. He is not killed. Al Qaeda is resurgent. In the meantime, we've got challenges....We have weakened our capacity to project power around the world because we have viewed everything through this single lens, not to mention, look at our economy. We are now spending $10 billion or more every month.
On pushing major legislation forward during a financial crisis:
Just as a cash-strapped family may cut back on luxuries but will insist on spending money to get their children through college, so we as a country have to make current choices with an eye on the future. If we don't invest now in renewable energy or a skilled workforce or a more affordable health care system, this economy simply won't grow at the pace it needs to in two or five or ten years down the road.
On how to effect systemic change incrementally:
This metaphor has been used before, but this -- the ship of state is an ocean liner; it's not a speed boat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue of how to bring about the changes that the American people need is to -- is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say that was when we started getting serious about clean energy, that's when health care started to become more efficient and affordable, that's when we became serious about raising our standards in education.
It is simply a canard that Obama bewitched Americans with empty, soaring rhetoric. Yes, he flatters us; yes, he idealizes American history while casting his policies as a course correction back to its mainstream after a 10-30 year hard right detour. But he uses that enchantment to good end. His rare gift is to set policy choices within a framework, first of the strategic ends specific to that policy, and second of the broader goal -- building sustainable shared prosperity.


  1. agreed. references to the creation of social security and medicare in the health care speech were very effective, i thought. loved the public university-public option analogy.

  2. oh, I completely agree that Obama's default tendency is to provide far too much detail. There are times where you just want to reach through the teeveez, whisper that he's boring you to tears, and gently push him back onto the high road.

  3. excellent analysis as always.
    I was struck as much by the delivery as by the content last night. Vacations suit him. There was energy, resolve, and direct engagement (far more piercing looks directly into the camera than I've seen recently). His voice was strong and again he proved to be a master of dynamics and pacing (a willingness to speak faster than usual and talk over applause). Well done & inspiring, you and the President.

  4. This is a perfect response -- I'm so glad somebody did the work of digging back through his other speeches to point out how inaccurate the claim of Obama's rhetorical insubstantiality is. It's a line that largely took hold on the right because they needed a way to respond to the fact that he gives a great speech. So they ginned up this "all hat, no cowboy" line of attack. Problem is, most non-partisan observers tend to conclude there's actually lots of cowboy, so the line has become essentially a self-reproducing article of faith that circulates among conservatives without making any inroads on anyone else.

    Having said that, 2 caveats: Clinton did inject substantive data (numbers, percentages, technical detail) more in his speeches. But while I loved those speeches, they turned a lot of people off. And, finally, I do find some Europeans are turned off by Obama's inspirational style. They love Obama, but find the oratory too bombastic. But that's a matter of European vs. American tastes and attitudes; Obama is doing what Americans demand of him, and doing it well.

  5. He does all of that, and then completely fumbles the ball on execution!

  6. We have believed for a long time that the proof of communication and persuasive skill is in a successful conversion of someone else to your point of view. And we blame the communicator if, for some reason, s/he can't magically tear down the listener's walls of resistance... and this little thing called "free choice"... to get the listener to adopt their values for their own.

    I think this is a terrible picture of what it means to be skilled at communication; and it pressures all of us, in this world where hiring decisions comes primarily because of "soft skills", to disrespect others' boundaries and points of view in the name of "proving" our prowess as communicators.

    And, Matt: Obama's style may come off to Europeans as too inspirational, because ALL Americans are given the message that if they're not exuding confidence, charisma and inspiration 24/7, they are lousy communicators. I think public figures' lives would be made quite a bit easier if we'd learn to appreciate other styles of personality and communicating more... that way, a person with a more understated style does not automatically think of themselves as awkward or unable to connect with voters/constituents; and you would see a lot less desperate showboating in competition to be the most stereotypically "charismatic", which all too often makes you look even MORE awkward and even sleazy.