Unasked is the question: Why can't original thought and intellectual seriousness also be expressed in speeches that are well written, cliche-free, polished, inspiring and memorable?
There are passages from Obama speeches that embody all these things -- parts of his Nobel Prize speech come to mind. But they mainly serve as reminders of what is too often missing. Even Obama's well-constructed lectures -- such as his Philadelphia race speech, or his Cairo remarks -- are marred by a transparent rhetorical ploy. In Obama's running seminar, a flawed thesis and a flawed antithesis are always resolved by the synthesis of Obama himself -- the speaker as Hegelian culmination of history. In this way, Obama manages to be both academic and arrogant. Instead of exploring the genuinely historic nature of his time, he veers toward messianism. His arrival is "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."
But Obama's largest rhetorical failure has come at times of crisis -- when a president's words matter most, and the time to craft them is most limited. His reactions to the Fort Hood murders and the Christmas Day attack were oddly disconnected from the emotions of the country he represents. His speech at Fort Hood was strong on paper but delivered with all the passion of remarks to the Chamber of Commerce. His recent White House speech on the terrorist threat was bureaucratic and bloodless. Both grief and resolve seem beyond his rhetorical range. People once thought Obama could sound eloquent reading the phone book. Now, whatever the topic, it often sounds as though he is.
His defenders, once again, elevate this into a virtue. He is an emotionally disciplined grown-up. But at least since Reagan, the rhetorical expectations of an American president have included not only mental toughness but empathy -- the ability to wear the nation's emotions on his sleeve. People want their president to be both the father and the mother of his country -- a talent shared by politicians as diverse as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (whose speeches I once helped write).
Obama's model, instead, is the coolness of Coolidge. It is old-fashioned. It may even be admirable. It is hard to call it effective. With every speech, a realization grows: A president lacking in drama may also be lacking in inspiration.