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. Read more…