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. Mr. 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.
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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 Mr. 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. Mr. Cantor asked Mr. Obama if he would drop his stand that the debt ceiling should be raised without dollar-for-dollar cuts. At that point, said Mr. 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 consider if the person making it had a lot of personal trust built up in the credibility bank. People have to believe you’re genuine in your anxiety for your country, that you’re working in good faith with the other party, that you’re not using a crisis for political gain, that you genuinely mean well toward all, including even the wealthy, that you are shrewd and wise in your choice of a path. Mr. 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 always 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.
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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 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.
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 Mr. Obama’s speeches as rhetorical kryptonite. It is the substance that repels the listener.