WASHINGTON -- Along with President Obama's declining public standing has come a declining rhetorical reputation. There is, of course, a relationship between the two. Even Ronald Reagan seemed a less-than-great communicator after the 1981-82 recession, with his job approval in the 30s. And few would be criticizing Obama's speeches if unemployment now stood at 6 percent. Success is the best eloquence.
But Obama's rhetorical challenge runs deeper than the recession. In the most unexpected development of his presidency, what was once universally recognized as Obama's greatest political strength -- his oratory -- now seems a serious weakness.
The swift rise of Barack Obama was primarily a literary phenomenon. His accomplishments did not come on the Senate floor; they came at Barnes & Noble. His two autobiographies, along with his 2004 speech at the Democratic convention, raised expectations of a rhetorical golden age. One early profile in New York magazine referred to Obama as "our national oratorical superhero -- a honey-tongued Frankenfusion of Lincoln, Gandhi, Cicero, Jesus and all our most cherished national acronyms (MLK, JFK, RFK, FDR)."
But Obama went from this exaggerated expectation to his current workmanlike utterances on health care and Afghanistan without an intervening period of remarkable eloquence. His acceptance speech was flat and typical. His inauguration was an extraordinarily historic moment -- which went uncelebrated by a comparably historic utterance. Obama's speeches to Congress and the American people have generally been explanatory rather than inspirational. His demeanor at West Point -- in a speech arguing for new sacrifices in the Afghanistan War -- was so stone-cold sober that one was left longing for happy hour.
Nothing has been more damning than the praise of Obama's defenders. James Fallows of the Atlantic says, "I'm not saying that his big set-piece speeches are cliche-free. ... Often they're not even that 'well written,' in a fancy-phrasemaking sense." And further: "Indeed, I can hardly remember any phrase or sentence from any speech Obama has ever given." Obama does not need "fine language" or "rhetorical polish" because he has the "eloquence that comes from original thought." Another defender has praised Obama's avoidance of "gratuitous bids for Bartlett's." Another concludes, "Maybe we don't need an inspiring president right now."
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