Thankfully, Speeches won't save O
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Speeches won't save O
By PEGGY NOONAN
Last Updated: 4:13 AM, August 7, 2011
Posted: 10:59 PM, August 6, 2011
There was drama at the White House this week when a man tried to hurl
himself over the fence. But the Secret Service intervened and talked the
president into going back inside and finishing his term.
That's from Conan O'Brien's monologue the other night. It captures the
moment pretty well. Obama's poll numbers continue to fall, his position in
the battleground states to deteriorate. From Politico: "Obama emerges from
the months-long [debt ceiling] fracas weaker - and facing much deeper and
more durable political obstacles - than his own advisers ever imagined." The
president seemed to admit as much when he met with supporters at a
fund-raiser in Chicago. "When I said 'Change we can believe in,' I didn't
say, 'Change we can believe in tomorrow.' Not 'Change we can believe in next
week.' We knew this was going to take time." When presidents talk like that,
they're saying: This isn't working.
One fact emerged rather starkly during the crisis, and it will likely have
implications in the coming year. It is that the president misunderstands
himself as a political figure. Specifically, he misunderstands his
rhetorical powers. He thinks they are huge. They are not. They are limited.
His conviction led to an interesting historic moment, and certainly a
dramatic one, during the debt ceiling negotiations.
It was late Wednesday afternoon, July 13, in the Cabinet Room in the White
House. Budget negotiations between Democrats and Republicans had been going
on for months. The president, the vice president and congressional leaders
on both sides were meeting again. Late in the meeting, House Majority Leader
Eric Cantor asked the president a question. As Cantor told it this week, he
was thinking about how the White House and the Republicans were still far
apart on the size of budget cuts. He felt the president and his party were
hung up on an insistence on raising taxes. Cantor asked Obama if he would
drop his stand that the debt ceiling should be raised without
dollar-for-dollar cuts. At that point, said Cantor, the president "turned to
me and said, 'Eric, don't call my bluff.' He said, 'I'm going to take this
to the American people.' " Then he got up and left.
The president was confident he could go over the heads of the opposition and
win the day with his powers of persuasion. On July 25 he made his move, with
a prime-time national address.
Boy, did it not work.
It was a speech with a calm surface but a rough undertow. "The wealthiest
Americans" and "biggest corporations" should "give up some of their breaks."
The "burden" must be "fairly shared." The problem is Republicans, who are
"insisting" on an approach that "doesn't ask the wealthiest Americans or the
biggest corporations to contribute anything at all." These Republicans ask
nothing of "those at the top of the income scale." Their stand would
"threaten working families" and enrich the "corporate jet owner," the "oil
companies" and "hedge fund managers." But don't worry, "the 98% of Americans
who make under $250,000 would see no tax increases at all." "Millionaires
and billionaires" must "share in the sacrifice." Otherwise the government
may not be able to send out Social Security checks.
It was, obviously, an attempt at class warfare. But class warfare is
inherently manipulative, and people often sense manipulation and lean away
from it. Americans at this point - they've been through the 20th century -
don't like attempts to divide them. It turns things sour.
Beyond that, it was the kind of appeal Americans would only begin to conside
r if the person making it had a lot of personal trust built up in the
credibility bank. Obama doesn't have that kind of trust. How many people
think he's broad-gauged, genuine, knowing, or that his judgment on political
issues is superior?
So the big speech went nowhere. It moved the dial nowhere but down. The
president's poll numbers continued to fall. And soon the White House put up
a white flag and dropped the insistence on tax increases, and Democrats and
Republicans came up with a bill that finally passed both houses.
The July 25 speech was of a piece with most of the president's rhetorical
leadership through the debt ceiling crisis. Some of his statements were
patronizing: We have to "eat our peas." He was boring in the way that people
who are essentially ideological are al ways boring. They bleed any realness
out of their arguments. They are immersed in abstractions that get reduced
to platitudes, and so they never seem to be telling it straight. And he was
a joy-free zone. No matter how much the president tries to smile, and he has
a lovely smile, one is always aware of his grim task: income equality,
redistribution, taxes. Come, let us suffer together.
But the president is supposed to be great at speeches. Why isn't it working
anymore? One answer is that it never "worked." The power of the president's
oratory was always exaggerated. It is true that a good speech put him on the
map in 2004 and made his rise possible, and true he gave some good speeches
in 2008. But people didn't really vote for him because he said did things
like: "This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our
planet began to heal." ; They voted for him in spite of that. They voted for
him for other reasons.
The president has been obsessing on Ronald Reagan the past few months,
referring to him in private and attempting to use him to buttress his
position in public. They say Republicans can't get over Reagan, but really
it's Democrats who aren't over him, and who draw the wrong lessons from his
success. Reagan himself never bragged about his ability to convince the
American people. He'd never point a finger and say: "I'll go to the people
and grind you to dust." He thought speaking was a big part of leadership,
but only part, and in his farewell address he went out of his way to say he
never thought of himself as a great communicator. He thought he simply
communicated great things - essentially, the vision of the founders as
applied to current circumstances.
< p class="MsoNormal">Democrats were sure Reagan was wrong, so they
explained his success to themselves by believing that it all came down to
some kind of magical formula involving his inexplicably powerful speeches.
They misdefined his powers and saddled themselves with an unrealistic faith
in the power of speaking.
But speeches aren't magic. A speech is only as good as the ideas it
advances. Reagan had good ideas. Obama does not. The debt ceiling crisis
revealed Obama's speeches as rhetorical kryptonite. It is the substance that
repels the listener.
From The Wall Street Journal.
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