Obama's Gift Has Stopped Giving
Obama feels our economic pain. We know this because he was so sincere as he addressed a joint session of Congress last Thursday. Or at least he tried to sound that sincere. The problem is that Obama struggles to come off empathetic, due to his inherently professorial speaking style. To make up for this shortcoming, Obama often employs a sort of out-loud whisper to give the impression of intense emotion while still speaking quietly. On Thursday, the president sought a doubly empathetic tone, but what resulted was speaking that sounded like an awkward cross between a grunt and a whisper (video below).
Obama has a reputation as something of a gifted orator; just ask him. Senate Majority Leader Reid tells a story of how, after an Obama speech, Reid told the future president, "that speech was phenomenal, Barack." According to Reid, a humble Obama replied, "I have a gift, Harry." (Apparently Senator Reid understands the word "humble" a bit differently from how the rest of us do.)
Others see Obama's "gift" as well, including Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal, Caren Bohan of Reuters, Peter Baker of the New York Times, and many, many others. Most arrived at this conclusion after the Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention speech or early in the 2008 presidential campaign. It's important to note that in both '04 and '08, Obama gave only one type of speech -- a large-audience, thunderous, rah-rah speech.
Obama's speechifying has led many to dub him the Democrat version of Ronald Reagan, but the two presidents bear little oratorical similarity. Unlike the one-trick Obama, Reagan had a full quiver of rhetorical and stylistic arrows. Reagan's abilities ran the gamut, from a political power-speech such as his pro-Barry Goldwater "Time for Choosing" to the sensitive eulogy of the Oval Office address following the tragedy of the space shuttle Challenger. The Gipper was also a great storyteller and masterfully used humor to put his audience at ease and playfully jab at his adversaries.
By contrast, once President Obama goes beyond the stadium, arena, or public mall, he is a fish out of water. Obama's humor, for example, is confined to sarcastic (at times bitter) remarks about his political opponents. "Leaders of the Republican Party," began the president just days after passing ObamaCare, "they called the passage of this bill 'Armageddon!' 'End of freedom as we know it!' So after I signed the bill I looked around to see if there were any asteroids falling or sudden cracks opening up in the earth."
Compare Obama's self-aggrandizing sarcasm to this Reagan quip, which he made directly to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev:
An American and a Russian were arguing about their two countries. The American said, "Look, in my country, I can walk into the Oval Office, I can pound the president's desk, and say, "Mr. President, I don't like the way you are running our country." And the Russian said, "I can do that." The American says, "You can?" He says, "Yes, I can go to the Kremlin, to the General Secretary's office, pound his desk, and say, "Mr. General Secretary, I don't like the way President Reagan's running his country."
Notice the subtle rhetorical brilliance of this short anecdote. In the joke, the Russian wins the argument. Both characters put Reagan in a negative light, and neither speak ill of the Russian premier. All the while the advocacy for freedom of expression is clear. With aspects which are flattering and unflattering to each side, the joke can be funny and endearing to both American and Russian audiences. Because Obama's humor relies almost wholly on his listeners' political prejudices, he must limit his jokes to the friendliest crowds.
Last Thursday's speech called for the very kind of connection that Obama has trouble creating. By now, the administration knows that the economy, and particularly the employment situation, will not significantly improve by November 6, 2012. Unable to end Americans' economic pain, the Obama campaign has apparently decided that the next-best thing is for the president to feel American's pain.
Ordinarily the president needs to use volume to convey emotion, but an "I feel your pain" speech calls for a more quiet intensity. Enter the grunt-whisper. In order to give what committed Obama-ite Dana Milbank called "one of the most impassioned speeches of his presidency," Obama had to dig deep. All he found was same old big-government proposals, delivered with the faux emotion of an awkwardly forced whisper.
Obama is clearly no Reagan. In Reagan's farewell address, he accepted his role as the "Great Communicator," but he maintained that the greatness lay in the principles of freedom rather than his style. In truth, it was both. He was a great orator who communicated great ideas. Obama is the opposite on both accounts -- a mostly below-average orator who communicates the tired ideas of failed states, past and present.
Joseph Ashby is a contributor to Jonah Goldberg's latest book, Proud to Be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation. Joseph can be heard Thursday mornings at 7:35am CST on the KHUB Morning Show with Matt Price.