Michael Gerson

Not every president -- not even every successful president -- has this kind of versatility. But Obama's monotone manner has worn poorly. During the primaries, his cool detachment highlighted Sen. John McCain's alarming excitability. As president, Obama's rhetorical range runs from lecturing to prickly -- the full gamut from A to C. His speeches are symphonies performed entirely with a tin whistle and an accordion. To switch metaphors, Obama is a pitcher with one pitch. He excels only at explanation. Initially this conveyed a chilly competence. But as the impression of competence has faded, we are left only with coldness.

In retrospect, one of the defining moments of the Obama presidency may have been his first two minutes in public after the Fort Hood shooting -- the initial test of his extemporaneous leadership. "Let me first of all just thank Ken and the entire Department of the Interior staff for organizing just an extraordinary conference," said Obama. "I want to thank my Cabinet members and senior administration officials who participated today. I hear that Dr. Joe 'Medicine' Crow was around, and so I want to give a shout-out ... "

Obama's "appalling calm" has been seen following bank abuses, a terrorist bombing attempt and an oil spill. And it is more than just a stylistic drawback. Obama has adopted a risky, costly, necessary military strategy in Afghanistan. Yet the rhetorical resources he has devoted to its defense have been meager. Can a wartime president succeed without providing inspiration and expressing determination? What if even greater national exertions become necessary in North Korea or Iran? Sometimes it is not sufficient to organize a disorganized country. It must be led.

"Before the orator can inspire audiences with any emotion," argued Winston Churchill, "he must be swayed by it himself. When he would rouse their indignation his heart is filled with anger. Before he can move their tears his own must flow. To convince them he must himself believe."

Obama's limited rhetorical range raises questions about the content of his deepest beliefs. For this reason among others, the man who doesn't need the love of crowds is gradually losing it.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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