The fastest way to immobilize a progressive during the 2007-08 US election season was to suggest that Barack Obama, though captivating, was not quite as effective a public speaker as Bill Clinton.
The stunned look of incredulity created by voicing this blasphemy became so bankable that, aside from offering a too-good-to-miss wind-up tactic, it betrayed how Obama’s attraction to his supporters derived, to an unusually large degree, from their projected desires at least as much as the reality the Senator from Illinois.
For anyone willing to look, Obamamania revealed how charisma is less a set of definable personal characteristics and more a temporary connection between and dependent on a leader and his supporters; a connection contingent on and reflective of the whims and wishes of the crowd at the time.
But back to Clinton and last night’s speech. A bravura performance.
In 48 gloriously over-run minutes, the 42nd President offered the most cogent, compelling, accessible, detailed and persuasive case for Obama’s administration and against the accusations showered upon it since at least the day of his inauguration. In doing so the Obama-Clinton contrast debate was reopened and – though this point is surely overstated – with a little more sting than Democrats might find electorally helpful.
Obama was and remains a remarkable speaker, as we’ll see again later tonight. No one in either party, with the exception of Sarah Palin’s connection with her own admittedly much smaller and atrophying base, can touch him as an orator. Except, of course, Bill; Bubba; the Big Dog, or as Chris Matthews heralded him in moment of signature Nicolas Cage-style hyperbole, the Democrats’ Elvis.
Listening to and watching Clinton last night I was reminded of my central 2007-08 barstool case against the idea that Obama is a better speaker the Clinton. A great speaker is a persuader; he or she goes beyond rallying the troops and changes the minds of opponents. Obama’s intelligence, integrity and transcendent messaging represented the apotheosis of contemporary Progressivism – but was he persuading the other lot? And how’s that worked out since?
Clinton, though hated by much of the right, routinely reached right-leaning Americans that other Democrats, including Obama, cannot. He ‘got through’. How many Independents and registered Republicans have been ‘converted’ by Obama?
The answer is far fewer than his team understood in 2008, hence the 2010 drubbing. By misreading the large 2008 victory which was at least as much a refutation of Bush and all his ways as it was an endorsement of Obama’s platform, Democrats mistakenly assumed they’d elected a contemporary Pericles armed with a mandate to remake America along Progressive lines.
President Obama continued making speeches. Lots and lots of speeches. In parallel, George Will brutally revealed in column after column what had become increasingly clear: people had stopped listening.
So what can we expect from Obama’s speech later this evening?
Conventional commentary depicts Clinton as the master of “I feel your pain” empathy in contrast to Obama’s more temperate rhetorical style. In this picture, if you like, 42 is the Communicator connecting with and speaking for the audience while 44 is the Messenger speaking to the audience. But as Clinton demonstrated last night, his powers of delivery and capacity to ‘connect’ are but one tactic in a master’s toolkit; his real genius is an ability to make the complicated simple, to make wonkery accessible and to describe policy and law in terms of their human realities, especially for You.
Clinton, it’s too often missed, appeals to his audience’s intellect as well as their emotions. This secures respect and trust. The starkness of how much he enjoys his talent makes it impossible not to enjoy his execution of it. This makes him likable.
Obama and his speech writers too often fail to argue. Instead, we’re served tale after yarn about Mary in Minnesota who can’t pay her bills or Kelly in Colorado who is struggling without health insurance; appeals to an audience’s sympathy for the lives of Kelly and Mary and others. This approach, a patronizing hallmark of progressives, failed abysmally in the run up to 2010.
If Obama’s speech writers want to learn the real lesson from Bill’s once-in-a-generation talent for talking, they’ll ditch the anecdotal appeals to sympathy and start making arguments about Obama’s policy agenda, arguments about the relevance of its details – not simply its underlying principals – to his audience’s lives.
Effective arguments stimulate empathy and intellect. After 4 years of a policy debate shaped by his opponents, tonight the President needs to make his case, not Mary’s, not Kelly’s. His case.
Obama is certain to make a good speech tonight but if you hear about three “real people” before hearing three real arguments you’ll know he’s failed to make a Clintonian Great Speech.
Update: Quick reaction to Obama’s speech
Puzzling, timid, disappointing. Deal not sealed.
Puzzling: This was supposed to be a speech about the next four years. Mr. President, what do you want to do with the next four years? I can’t remember a single thing. Vague ideas about a balanced budget – but how?
Timid: Speaker upon speaker attacked the GOP’s plans. What are the Democrats’ plans? Are there any?
Disappointing: That speech screamed of calculation rather than leadership; a calculation that avoiding specifics is the safest route. My problem is not only with how that’s boring, I fear that it portends an administration out of gas; “drifting” as Paul Ryan accused last week. “Elect us or you’ll get the Republicans.” Is that it?
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