Thursday, July 23, 2009

On presidents, press conferences...and painful eloquence.

Now that we've gotten a half-dozen of these pressers under our collective national belt, I'm wondering how many of you are starting to feel the way I do about the rhetorical prowess we so admired in our man Barack when he was running for office. The word for the way I feel is "uneasy." Back then, of course, during the campaign, we were so starved for demonstrable intellect after eight years of Dubya that we exulted in Obama's rhetorical virtuosity and the obvious brainpower behind it. I must tell you, however, that after last night I'm starting to view that scholarly brilliance of his as, well, something of a handicap.

Just about every answer last night had a "first of all" or a "before we get into that"...then later had a "now, to look at the broader picture" component as well. This is nothing new for Obama; it is the continuation of a pattern established at his very first press conference, and even before that, during his campaign debates, though in those days it was clear that careful "woodshedding" had pared at least some of his answers down to easily digestible talking points. But today, every one of his answers includes six parenthetical asides. Every idea he puts forward has four qualifiers, caveats or conditions. He seems unable to deliver the "nugget," the central thought, without also providing every conceivable nuance. If he were asked to go over his answers and supply a topic sentence for each paragraph, as was required of me and my peers in sixth grade, I wonder if the man could even do it.

He's rhetorically ubiquitous: everywhere at once.

This is a characteristic of super-intelligent people. They see nuance everywhere. They perceive the complexity in even the simplest concepts; ask them if they like roses and you'll get a dissertation on the nitrogen cycle. I also think it likely that Obama figures he'll bulletproof his discourse and the agenda that underlies it by covering all possible objections before the opposition gets a chance to bring them up, thereby defusing any rebuttals. In that respect he's probably thinking like a trial lawyer (or his notion of the way a trial lawyer thinks; more on that in a moment). In any case, he's not a lawyer, at least not now, and this isn't a trial. He's the president of the Uni
ted States of America at a most difficult juncture in its history, and he's seeking consensus on a critical matter. He is a man trying to demonstrate Leadership. And what that Leadership most demands is clarity.

Alas, the man simply cannot give us a snapshot of where we are; he seems bent on telling us, over and over, how we got here, what other routes we might have taken, and where we might go in the future. As I listened to him spend a numbing 60 minutes droning his answers to just 10 questions, one of two things I thought was, I'd hate to be lost somewhere and have to depend on this guy to give me directions. (I'll get to the second thing I thought, which will tie up that loose end about trial lawyers, in a moment.)

See, Obama speaks as he writes. Normally that's said as a compliment, as it often was said of intellectuals like the late William Buckley and is often said now of Gore Vidaland I guess, in the abstract, it's a compliment here too. Very few people are capable of delivering, off the cuff, such wonderfully rounded, rhetorically imposing, lyrically and cognitively flawless sermonettes.

Which helps explain why Obama's approval rating is falling.

It's important to realize that people who aren't accustomed to functioning on that level, people who don't see the n
uance and who feel they have a firm grasp on "the way things are" (or ought to be)—which is most peopledistrust the bounty of oratorical artistry that burbles forth from our man Barack. They think maybe it's designed to be confusing. They think maybe he's hiding something, tap-dancing when he should just be explaining. They think maybe he's not as sure of this course of action as he ought to be.

Further, he doesn't know when to quit. He doesn't know how to throw a knockdown punch and simply retreat to a neutral corner. Last night when a reporter asked a complex question about how many people the administration's health plan realistically would cover, Obama's first line in response was, "I want to cover everyone..." And that should have been his answer, period. Next! Even if there were other details he wanted to get into the record, he could've found a way of bringing them up elsewhere. (Lord knows he spent enough time digressing in every other answer!) But the man has no sense of rhetorical moment. He doesn't know when to just SHUT UP and let his words reverberate in the room. Every answer to every question becomes a delving, searching, ponderous essay.

Brilliant though he may be, Barack Obama is no Winston Churchill.
Obama's eloquence is often counterproductive. I dare say it is sometimes painful to listen to.

I'm convinced after this latest performance that increasingly, now that Barack Obama is no longer a mere metaph
or and must actually govern, the only people he connects with are people just like himpeople who glory in brilliance for its own sakeand overall, there aren't that many out there across America. Which brings me to the second thought that kept occurring to me last night: The man does not know how to speak to "the folks," as Bill O'Reilly likes to put it. I was reminded of what legendary defense attorney Gerry Spence told me during an interview for my Skeptic piece on the criminal-justice system. Harvard lawyers, said Gerry, "have spent their entire lives in their left brain... They've not been taught anything about communication. They don't know how to talk to ordinary people." Spence went so far as to argue that such types have been "ruined as communicating human beings."

Barack must learn that brilliant oratory does not equal effective communication. Those are two very different things. And he must learn it soon.


Neuroskeptic said...

I think this is absolutely true.

Incidentally, if Obama loses in 2012, you will be able to make a living writing articles to the effect that "He was just too smart for the American people" to comfort Democrats.

Also incidentally (I take after Obama), I haven't read The Political Brain but my understanding is that it's thesis is basically "Democrats need to get comfortable with emotive rhetoric",

Now I know Obama's problem isn't that he's not emotive as such, he is certainly no Al Gore, but it's a similar idea...

Elizabeth said...

Steve, my sentiments (almost;) exactly:

BTW, WV: constp...

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, had Obama given the pat, one-punch answers you wanted to hear, he'd have been attacked for glazing over the complexities of the problems he faces. I'd suggest that the proof will ultimately be in the pudding, not the rhetoric. IMHO, if he manages to improve conditions to the point that people actually feel better about their lives, his rambling rhetoric will merely serve as fodder for historians and debate coaches.

Steve Salerno said...

Oh, I agree that he was going to be criticized by pundits no matter what he said or how he said it. The partisan climate in D.C. is just too entrenched. However, when you have an opportunity to speak directly to the American people that way, and to either (a) incite them to grassroots action (e.g. to start sending faxes to their congresspeople) or (b) leave them wondering what the hell was actually said, I don't think you hurt yourself by pursuing course (a).

We all want him to take actions that will improve people's lives. Unfortunately, without broad support, such actions are too often stillborn. I know just from reading the letters and op-eds in my local paper that many blue-collar types in this area who have either been laid off or fired outright--and would thus normally be supporters of the kinds of moves Obama wants to make--have nonetheless been scared or outraged by the simple overtones of the S Word (socialism). Obama and the Democrats need some equally powerful symbols/koans/whatever that will resonate with "the folks" and turn a roiling, directionless sea into a solid wave of support. The kind of meandering presentation that Obama gave last night--tons of words, all logic, very little "juice"--ain't gonna cut it.

RevRon's Rants said...

"The kind of meandering presentation that Obama gave last night--tons of words, all logic, very little "juice"--ain't gonna cut it."

I guess I have to agree with you, given so many folks' predilection for pat answers & buzzwords. Even during the campaign, I found myself wishing he'd deliver a few bitch-slaps, rather than his typically reasoned - if rambling - responses. I'm just so encouraged by intelligent, nuanced responses (as opposed to the smirking platitudes of the last 8 years) that I probably tend to overlook the fact that he needs to appeal to the same folks who related to W's non-answers.

I still say that the proof will be in the pudding, even though he would admittedly serve himself better and facilitate his efforts by serving up the easily comprehended stuff so many people want to hear while he's working on the problems.

Elizabeth said...

Obama can be too ponderous for his own (and our) good sometimes, and, as Bill Maher advised him, we've had enough of the audacity of hope, now we are just hoping for some audacity on his part.

But what can one do, Steve? The issue of (the necessity of) health care reform is a no-brainer to me and apparently to the majority of Americans -- yet we seem to be fighting a futile battle against the big and mighty powerful special interest groups shaping the political process.

I have done all I could think of -- contacted my (so-called) representatives, written letters, signed petitions and blogged about it ad nauseam. So have thousands of other people. And yet it appears that nobody really listens to you if you are not a lobbyist with a suitcase full of monies.

When the health care debate started, in earnest, in Washington, there were thousands of doctors and nurses protesting and demanding the reform in front of our lawmakers' noses. They were simply ignored.

It is sadly reminiscent of the protests vs. propaganda in the wake of the Iraq invasion in 2003. The facts, the numbers, the common sense, decency and moral arguments are on our side, yet they seem irrelevant to our lawmakers.

We have a democracy, sure -- for those who can pay handsomely to have their voices heard and matter.

Cosmic Connie said...

I agree with the main points in this post, re Obama's communication style. I also agree with the need for health care reform but am not at all certain about the legislation that's now on the table. Regarding the particulars of that 1,000-plus-page-long piece of legislation, what scares me more than not knowing the price in dollars is not knowing how much more of our personal freedoms we'll have to give up. What I find particularly repugnant on both counts is the idea of mandatory health insurance, with fines of $1,000 and up for those who don't have it. I don't have insurance because I can't afford it, and yes, I know the Obama plan talks about "affordable" insurance being mandatory. However, since I'm self-employed and my income varies wildly, what I can and cannot afford also varies wildly. And people who can't afford "affordable" insurance sure can't afford the friggin' fine for not having it.

Case said...

>> Obama and the Democrats need some equally powerful symbols/koans/whatever that will resonate with "the folks"

I agree that the President needs some help to simplify his message, especially when he's addressing the American people as a whole.

I was dissapointed in the event and was hoping for a clear Bush style message at the far end of complexity.

Elizabeth said...

"What I find particularly repugnant on both counts is the idea of mandatory health insurance, with fines of $1,000 and up for those who don't have it."

Totally agree, Connie. It is repugnant. And so are some other half-assed measures masquerading as a "reform" here.

This is the case of the truth of Churchill's (if I recall correctly) observation that Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they've exhausted everything else.

In this case, the right -- i.e., the most reasonable, cost-effective and just -- thing is a public not-for-profit insurance for all.

No penalties or other such nonsense, which enter the debate when we start fudging about with protecting the industry from well-deserved (and fair) competition with those silly ideas like health care co-ops or such.

If some free market purists want to keep their private options, let them, why not -- but let's just do what's right, for once, instead of delaying the inevitable: not-for-profit, affordable public insurance for all.

Anonymous said...

'This is the case of the truth of Churchill's (if I recall correctly) observation that Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they've exhausted everything else.'

Old Winnie was an eloquent, witty and intelligent man but he was also a ruthless politician. His well-remembered oratorical triumphs (We'll fight them on the beaches... etc) were polished and worked over by a team of speechwriters and presented for public consumption while Winnie just got on with the dirty business of politicking.

Where are Obama's speechwriters?

Steve Salerno said...

I really think the "problem" with Obama is that he thinks intellect is its own justification. It is also clear that he prides himself on his intellect and--like many of those I met in academia--simply rules out the idea that he might ever have to apologize for being "airy," educated, introspective, analytical, etc. And there's an additional context here, which is that people like Obama and Cosby and other notables in the black community spend no small amount of time fighting the "ghetto ethic" that wants to interpret intelligence, education and--especially--erudition as a betrayal of sorts: selling out to "Whitey." It must therefore pain Obama, or at least go very much against the grain, for him to have to make concessions and/or dumb down his points in order to click with the great unwashed. Understand, I'm not quibbling with his vocabulary per se, or his oft-complex sentence structure; I'm talking more about the complexity in ideas, and his ostensible need to explain every facet of every idea he brings up, and then to even drag in counterarguments and explain those as well. (I.e. "my opponents say...") Why do that? We need directness and clarity of purpose. That debating-class stuff just muddies the waters.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:03: Just Google or Bing Jon Favreau and it will become very clear why Obama's speeches sound the way they do.

The erudite leading the more erudite. God help us.

Anonymous said...

President Obama does not know when to shut up - that is true. It's also true of Vice President Biden. The difference is that Obama causes our eyes to glaze over and our minds to wander as he stammers and yammers away. But Biden seems to go out of his way to set off a Claymore mine when he goes off script. Biden extemporaneous trips have an element of danger which keeps my attention.

Dick Cheney was a solid communicator: he answered questions clearly and succinctly - even if those answers chilled us to the core, we knew where he stood.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 11:19: Political loyalties aside, what you say about Cheney is true. And his alter ego (at least in the early days) Rumsfeld. One of my favorite Rumsfeld quotes dates to the early days of the push into Afghanistan, when some reporter, looking to stir things up, asked Rumsfeld whether he was concerned that our forces were running out of targets to bomb. To which Rumsfeld succinctly replied: "We're not running out of targets. They are."

RevRon's Rants said...

"Dick Cheney was a solid communicator: he answered questions clearly and succinctly ..."

If not truthfully.

"... even if those answers chilled us to the core, we knew where he stood."

More accurately, where he wanted us to believe he stood. Yes, some of the things he said (and did) chilled some of us to the core. What is more unsettling to me is the degree to which some accepted his "values," which were all-too-frequently at odds with the values laid out by our Constitution.

I, for one, will choose overly-detailed and long-winded explanations over obfuscation and downright deceit any day.

roger o'keefe said...

It seemed inevitable that when certain parties returned to the blog, the demonizing would start all over again. And now it has.

There are those of us who applaud what Messrs. Bush and Cheney tried to do to secure the country they loved. People in the public eye, even at the upper reaches of government, cannot be fully forthcoming about every last thing. It is folly to argue that they can, or even should. The climate of disclosure that existed during the Bush-Cheney years is light years more open than what existed during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In those conflicts there was often a total blackouts on information and the official dissemination of outright falsehoods about missions, fatalities, and other realities of war. Why single out Cheney? We have all this love in hindsight for presidents like FDR when in fact they ran some of the most close-mouthed and secretive administrations on record! Kennedy too.

People can say what they want about Dick Cheney but he was not Satan or the antichrist. He was a man doing a job to protect the nation he loved. At least give him that.

RevRon's Rants said...

Roger, just to be clear, the real "demonization" involved the subjugation of our Constitution, the values upon which it was based, and the replacement of patriotism with the hunger for ever-increasing levels of power.

This "certain party" is painfully aware of the government's misdeeds during the Vietnam war, and I have extensively studied previous examples of the mindset that was willing to sacrifice principle in the quest to achieve a personal / political agenda.

That egregious acts were performed in the past is not justification for engaging in those acts in the future. I would hope that our country would continually strive to become better, rather than rationalize the repeat of our worst behavior. There's a big difference between engaging in covert operations to keep us safe and abandoning the principles that (should) make this country a role model for integrity in government. Sadly, there are those whose for whom partisan loyalty supersedes the desire to see the country achieve its highest potential, and renders them unable to distinguish the difference.

Lapsed Pastafarian said...

As the saying goes: "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit." You're right, sometimes he needs to just stop.