Thursday, January 14, 2010

Rhetoric and Political Accomplishment

President Barack Obama came to office as the Golden Boy with the magic tongue capable of sending tingles up the legs of respected journalists as though they were ten year old girls at a Jonas Brothers concert. He would cry out, "We are the change we've been waiting for," and a concert stadium would go wild. Many thought, "Finally, a President who can talk! He speaks our language and speaks to our hearts."

A year into his presidency, we are in a good position to access his rhetoical ability.

This is no small matter. Rhetoric is one of the essential tools a democratic statesman needs for governing effectively. Rhetoric is the use of public speech—words that are well chosen and well spoken—to move people to agreement and to action. Francis Bacon called it the application of “reason to imagination for the better moving of the will” (Advancement of Learning II xviii 2).

The Presidents pictured above had various records of success in their ability to speak to the American people. George Bush was pretty good when he wanted to be. He was hot when he debated Michael Dukakis on television. But in office, he spoke of "the vision thing" as though it were of little importance. He lost the next election. His son, George W., was worse. In his second term, he pressed ahead with his policies, but gave almost no attention to bringing the voters along with him in understanding and commitment. As a consequence, his approval rating fell to the floor, Congress ignored him insofar as they could, and his political power diminished considerably.

Bill Clinton could talk. He was trained by actors, and carefully calculated his words, their delivery, and their emotional coloring. He connected with the people on a deep level. But, of course, this was squandered, because what agenda he had was paltry compared to his considerable abilities, and he wasted much of his opportunity defending himself against avoidable scandals.

Then there was Jimmy Carter, the man on the end who seems to be off on his own. It is no accident that he is not the leader of his party, even though he is a former President, alive, and writes books. At our time of multiple crises, he showed us a long, worried face, and scolded us for our malaise. Apparently, he did not actually use the word "malaise," but we all remember that he did, as it summarized nicely whatever he said in his public address that night, and so it stuck. Again, one term, but also lasting shame.

The Great Communicator of course is man who is not pictured: Ronald Reagan. He had a knack for going around the press, speaking directly to the American people about their concerns in familiar terms because he knew them well.

So what about Barack Obama? In office, he has come across as inappropriately cool, as, for example, when he (finally) spoke after the underwear bomber's failed attempt to bring down a plane over Detroit. He usually speaks in the dry and technical manner of a tenured university professor, i.e. one who knows more than anyone in the room, and who doesn't have to convince anyone of anything to keep his job. He seems emotionally detatched and socially aloof.

This style does not match his agenda. He and his Democratic allies in Congress have set out on an aggressive agenda of government intervention and control the likes of which we have not seen in two generations or more. Yet, he has not been able to bring the great middle along with him. Approval for his most treasured initiative, health care reform, stands today at 37%. Under Obama's government, the American people have actually become more conservative.

David Brooks, in his column "The Tea Party Teens," identifies the present governing class (as they also identify themselves) as "the educated class," and argues that the Tea Party movement is a passionate but informed rejection of everything that this governing class--that includes and is typified by President Obama--represents.

Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.

Commenting on Brooks, Noemie Emery emphasizes that the public recoil against the President's politics is substantive not only as to specific policies, but also as to the political theory underlying those policies.

While the liberal Left controls the White House along with both houses of Congress, the country it governs has moved to the Right. These phenomena are all interrelated: The country is moving Right in reaction to Obama's theories of governance, and Obama and the educated class are one and the same.

Michael Barone, also commenting on Brooks's column, remarks on how the 2008 Obama supporters were impressed largely with his style.

The Obama enthusiasts who dominated so much of the 2008 campaign cycle were motivated by style. The tea party protesters who dominated so much of 2009 were motivated by substance.

Remember those rapturous crowds that swooned at Barack Obama's rhetoric. "We are the change we are seeking," he proclaimed. "We will be able to look back and tell our children" that "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." A lot of style there, but not very much substance. A Brookings Institution scholar who produced nothing more than that would soon be looking for a new job.
The great surprise of the Obama presidency has been the contrast between the enormity of his domestic policy ambitions in comparison with the rapid shrinkage of popular support for them on account not only of their inherent problems but also of his ineptitude in promoting them rhetorically. Obama's governing rhetoric has not matched the rhetoric of his campaign. Ill-crafted rhetoric in support of unpopular and even irksome policies will make Barack Obama an historically important one-term President.

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