"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What If Obama Really Isn't a Great Speaker?

I happened to pick up the New York Times to read over lunch.   I rarely do -- the paper is so predictably liberal that it's hardly worth reading for the commentary (they have, for instance, a ridiculously wrong-headed editorial today about the meaning of the Wisconsin recall elections), and its sports section is always a day late and a dollar short compared to what you can get online.   Some of the Arts section is interesting sometimes, if you think Broadway is the be-all of theater, which I don't; or if you think contemporary art is worth looking at, which I also don't.  

But today I did notice a series of letters about Drew Westen's article over the weekend about the onset of Obama Disappointment Syndrome, two of which threw in asides that assume, without evidence, the one attribute that Obama supporters always point to:
Barack Obama has just not been tough enough to confront the myriad transgressions of the Congressional Republicans, who have decimated our economy and our political process.

Further, despite his considerable rhetorical skills, President Obama has failed to articulate a coherent message for change, and has lacked the courage to use the bully pulpit to stand up to the bullies of the right.


Like Drew Westen, I find that my high hopes, audacious as they may have been, were first deflated on that bright Inauguration Day. I hadn’t realized it then, but what we heard was the first of many lifeless lectures to come from the professor in chief.

His passive handling of the debate over stimulus, jobs and the health public option was even more disappointing. He let his energized, well-organized and better scripted opponents win the message game no matter how far from the truth they wandered.

President Obama has chosen not to use the most effective tool a president has — the bully pulpit, a tool for which he was especially gifted and one he could have skillfully used to expose the gaping chasms in Republican attacks and narratives.
The premise of these letter-writers is that Obama is a skilled orator, a great rhetorician, a speaker of such power that he ought to be able to persuade the masses simply with his poetry.   But where is the evidence that Obama is such a great speaker?   I mean, really:  can anyone off the top of your head repeat one line that Obama has used in a speech that is even remotely memorable?   Reagan had: "Evil Empire," "tear down this wall," "morning in America."   Kennedy had "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."   What does Obama have?   He makes a lot of speeches, but I can't remember any of them.

And, for that matter, where is the evidence that Obama was ever such a great student or intellect?   We have never seen his grades.   He wrote no law review articles, either at Harvard or as a faculty member at U. of Chicago.   His memoirs, it is generally held, were ghost-written.   I've seen no statements by lawyers who worked with him that he was brilliant, and no memories of any law students who say that he inspired them.  

I really hate to say this, because it may sound bad.   But I think that the myth of Obama's great rhetorical gifts had a good deal to do with him being an African-American.   How many of us have heard sportscasters talking about young black athletes note that they were "articulate," as if young black men who are articulate are somehow special or unique, with the implied racism that most young black men aren't.   So when Obama comes along and can speak with generic upper-middle-class white East Coast Ivy League smoothness, everyone thinks he's the second coming of Lincoln.   He's not.  He's just a lawyer-pol and, believe me, they're a dime a dozen.

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