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Barack Obama and the Rhetorical Presidency

September 25, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Coming from a Communications background, one of the most fascinating aspects of Barack Obama’s Presidency to me has been his impact as a rhetorician. For most people, the first time they had ever heard of the State Senator from Illinois was during his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, and in the age of YouTube, he was able to transform that moment into a successful Presidential run just four years later. With dissatisfaction of President Bush, the Iraq War, and the Republican party at record levels that prompted Time magazine to wonder if the Republican party was dead in America, many on the left thought they may have a generational President who could serve as a counter to Reagan’s legacy as “The Great Communicator” and usher in a long-term shift in the politics of the majority.

While President Obama has lived up to his eloquence as a public speaker, his overall communication has been unexpectedly disappointing to both sides of the aisle. For as much as he has accomplished as President (regardless of your opinion of it), so much of it has been with a detached administrative style more reminiscent of the professor and lawyer he was, than the firebrand some people talked themselves into. Perhaps more importantly, his reserved style had allowed many of his substantive accomplishments to fly under the radar.

There was actually a draft of this article from 2011, during the heart of the Health Care debate, wondering why Obama had eschewed the Oval Office for addresses in favor of the East Room. Instead of the historic sit-down style address favored by Presidents in the age of television, Obama has preferred the lectern and the background of the White House’s largest room. It was where he delivered the news that the Marines finally killed Osama bin Laden, it’s where he’s given speeches on the progress of the Affordable Care Act, his Jobs bill pitch and several others. In a break from tradition, Obama has only used the famous setting twice in his six years in office.

So much of the modern Presidency has been rhetorically driven that it’s easy to miss, yet is absolutely imperative to our conception of the office. The State of the Union, as mandated by the Constitution for years was simply a written letter to congress, and yet with the advent of radio and later television it became an address to the nation using the power of Congress and government as a backdrop. (Update: Rhetorical tradition backfired on President Obama for failing to properly return a salute exiting Marine One, in a ritual that was only started under President Reagan, and many officers still feel is inappropriate for a civilian.) Ceding back some of that accumulated rhetorical power and prestige always struck me as an odd decision.

What brought this back to me was Hillary Clinton’s July 15th appearance on the Daily Show. Peter Beinart in The Atlantic honed in on what I found the most interesting part of her appearance; the notion that America’s problem abroad was less of policy, and more a failure to tell our story. The belief that the crafting of a narrative is more important than the substance behind them is telling on a number of levels, yet as a lifelong politician, Clinton knows there is also a great deal of truth behind it. 

The rise of the Tea Party, which followed Time magazine’s proclamation of the death of the GOP and most notably the debate on Health Care, was centered on a platform almost exclusively on limited spending and taxation. Staying away from political ideologies, the greater question of pertinence is that of political rhetoric vs. reality. According to conservative David Frum’s polling at a Tea Party rally, almost 97% believed taxes had gone up under Obama (they didn’t for those making under $250,000), and they estimated the total the federal government gets in taxes as a percentage of GDP to be around 42% (The CBO estimates it around 14.8%). 

As much as I’d like to use that to bash the Tea Party, sadly they’re not all that far out of line with the majority of Americans who have been subjected to endless political debate and hand-wringing with little substantive information. A 2010 New York Times poll found that fewer than 10% of Americans realized President Obama’s $116 Billion cut lowered tax bills for 95% of the population. Instead, half of citizens thought they had stayed the same, and a third thought they had gone up. The same is true for perception of the Budget Deficit which has been cut by more than half since 2010, yet almost 60% believe it is still increasing, and violent crime which, contrary to public debate, is sharply on the decline. 

Even with President Obama’s crown jewel of Health Care reform, he sat back above the fray and allowed it to be defined by the Republican noise machine as “Obamacare” with its death panels and higher insurance rates. While almost all of those charges brought against it were political exaggeration (if not outright lies), the damage was done to public understanding. At the height of debate when there was titular wall-to-wall coverage of the reforms, Kaiser Health polling pointed out nearly 60% didn’t feel like they had enough information to make a decision on the Affordable Care Act. Even today, the difference in spin between conservative media spaces and reality is striking as pointed out by Vox media. Not coincidentally, it was when Obama jumped directly into the fray to communicate his vision of the law that popular opinion swayed more his way. The televised health care summit in which both parties had a roundtable negotiation, was a genius bit of rhetorical communication, I just wish we had seen more of it. 

As much as Barack Obama favors the calm detachment of behind the scenes negotiations and level-headed compromises as opposed to negotiating through the public sphere, it may be the largest reason so much of the public is ambivalent about his accomplishments.  There are three President Obamas; the one people hoped he could be, the one many fear he is, and the leader he has consistently been in reality for the past 6 years. The toxicity polluting the narrative gulf between those conceptions unfortunately has made fruitful discussion almost impossible. The stock market has skyrocketed from the day he took office going from 7950 to over 17,000, the economy has recovered the volume of not only the 4.3 million jobs lost in his first year, but also those in the 12 months before he took office. Taxes, spending, and the deficit are all down during his presidency. Despite that, President Obama’s job approval on the economy has remained virtually unchanged throughout his Presidency and hovers around the 40% range. There is certainly room to critique the President from both sides of the aisle, and this is not fundamentally even an expression of support, but President Obama’s rhetorical style has made it too easy for narrative dissonance to corrupt an honest debate.

Much of the disappointment about his Presidency is grounded, not in what he has or hasn’t done, but what could have been. Expectations will always damn you, but there was a hope among many that President Obama stood at the head of a zeitgeist that would change the recent era of politics. Instead, they got the calculating pragmatist he had always been, his success were muted and as opposition ramped up their rhetoric, supporters settled into a quiet acceptance. Unfortunately, boisterous lies still go further than humble truth and the echo chamber of Washington is only so useful when all that’s being repeated is misinformation. By choosing to give credit to the American people’s political acumen, President Obama may go from one of the biggest benefactors of Presidential rhetoric to one of its greatest victims. 

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