Following Bill Clinton

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.

Voicing this blasphemy invariably provoked a stunned look of incredulity that, aside from offering the contrarian a too-good-to-miss wind-up tactic, betrayed how Obama’s supporters were attracted in part, and to an unusually large degree, not simply to the individual man on stage but to the desires and hopes projected by his followers and supporters.

Charisma is normally understood as a personality attribute. It is not. As the celebrity-like public persona of then Senator and Candidate Obama demonstrated, charisma reflects not only the personality attributes of a leader but something of the eye of the beholder too. Talk of Barack Obama’s charisma is really shorthand not for the politician per se but for the relationship he enjoys with his followers, a connection contingent on and reflective of the whims and wishes of a particular crowd at a particular time.

When assessing the health of the Obama Administration in 2012, this week’s DNC Convention has confirmed the urgently obvious relevance of this point: The American electorate have endured 4 very long years since the initial jubilation associated with Candidate Obama in 2008. A second term is far from assured.

So 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 so doing debating the contrasts between Presidents Obama and Clinton has restarted and – though this point is surely overstated – possibly with a little more substance than 2012’s Democrats might find welcome.

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 America Right, routinely reached right-leaning Americans that other Democrats, including Obama, cannot. Clinton ‘got through’.

How many Independents and registered Republicans have been ‘converted’ by Obama?

The answer is far fewer than his team appreciated in 2008, hence the 2010 drubbing. By misreading the large 2008 victory – which was at least as much a belated refutation of the GOP’s President Bush and all his ways as it was an endorsement of Obama’s platform – Democrats mistakenly assumed America had elected a contemporary Progressive Pericles armed with a mandate to remake America along Democratic lines.

2010’s Republican rising should have been a reality-check yet President Obama continued making his speeches. Lots and lots of speeches. The result, as George Will brutally recorded in column after column, 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. Clinton’s real rhetorical genius is his ability to make the complicated simple, to make wonkery accessible and to describe policy and law in terms of their impact on ordinary people, 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 up tale after yarn about Mary in Minnesota who can’t pay her bills or Kelly from Colorado who struggles through without health insurance. These appeals to an audience’s sympathy represent the patronizing hallmark of conventional progressive rhetoric – and this approach failed abysmally in the run up to 2010.

Bill Clinton understands why sympathy appeals fail. 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 attempts to trigger sympathy and trust the audience by making arguments about Obama’s specific policy agenda – and not simply its underlying principals – by highlighting the relevance of its commendable detail to the 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 case. Not Kelly’s case. His own 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 – avoiding specifics as the safest route – rather than leadership. My problem is not only with how boring the speech was. 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?

Strategic Communications Consultant, located in Washington, D.C.

46 thoughts on “Following Bill Clinton

  1. The Southern Drawl is music, it will always convince and enthral, but was only one of the things that made Clinton one of the greatest “politicians” of the modern era, meaning poltician as a salesman, Obama is nowhere near, but we shall see tonight, Romney has set the bar quite low, but ironically it means he could still win easily with a steady course and even a simple Obama slip up, this could be interesting.

  2. Clinton started a few nails last night, Obama needs only drive them home. I think the election is Obama’s to lose. If he does nothing to damage himself between now and November, he’s golden, imho.

  3. For many democrats watching last night,Clinton’s speech was akin to a big brother arriving at last to take on the bully. The problem is that in doing so, he may- depending perhaps on how good Obama is tonight- have made the current president look like the little brother who needed help.

  4. Kevsterino, agree.

    I am a little biased here but the Democrat convention so far has been pure energy, enthusiasm and vitality. The Republicans noticeably less so, they seemed to simply come across as angry, and it was hard to spin away the fact that the party faithful are finding it hard to swing behind Mitt.

  5. I live in Missouri. Missouri has been moving rightward for years and it was widely predicted McCaskell would lose her Senate seat this fall. Up steps Todd the Clod Akin and with a few incredibly insensitive ignorant mutterings on local TV, he is dust in the wind. Whether that winds up meaning anything in the Presidential race, I’m not sure. But it has the locals acting pretty skittish. I’d love to see the mess cost the GOP a Senate majority. ;o)

  6. @lacheeco, it was a bit like you say. Kind of like the old “Mighty Mouse” cartoons. “Here I come, to save the daaaay” Had the Constitution not been amended to proscribe it, I truly believe Bill Clinton could be elected this year.

  7. In presidential campaigns, an important part of the VP candidate’s job is attack dog. Joe Biden, I believe, is a bit better at that than Paul Ryan. But they are both very good at it.

    This election has a chance to be the nastiest of my lifetime.

  8. Kev,
    Know it well. Cut through all the time from 55to70. Obama speech was decent enough but job figures tomorrow morning might overshadow everything if they go south

  9. Bedtime 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 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?

  10. Ruari

    I mostly agree with you. The lack of specifics was a major mistake. Nothing about the real estate/mortgage problem, nothing about the consumer financial protection agency, nothing about how to increase manufacturing jobs by one million, nothing about how, where and what on 600,000 jobs in energy sector, etc.

    If they have specific plans, he should have let us know. Choosing to speak of policies that sound like platitudes and not laying out specific plans was a big missed opportunity. You may be right that the calculation was elect us or you get stupid and dishonest, which still works but it could and should have been much more.

    As you point out, the contrast with Bill Clinton last night was inescapable and harmful to Obama because of the timid tone and lack of specificity. Still I am without doubt that Obama will continue to be a better President that Romney could ever be.

  11. Doesn’t compare with the great speeches we hear from our Leaders in N.I. at election time:

    We will make our communities safer. To do so, our #1 priority will be to put a charge of 5p on each and every bag you get at your supermarket blah blah blah.

  12. Ruairi,

    With respect I think you have completely missed the agenda here.

    The Democrats meticulously planned the convention so that Biden would deliver all of the hard hitting messages and elaborate on some of the specifics in relation to future economic policy (which he did).

    It was always planned that Obama’s speech would re-emphasise and re-hash the general ‘hope’ theme which got him elected first time around. Albeit, with much less dramatics this time.

    I thought Obama’s speech was both polished and confident and also exploited his significant powers of oratory. US elections have much to do with the public personas of the individuals concerned and I still think that Obama has a small but perhaps decisive lead over Romney at this stage.

    It could all change of course…

  13. Obama is not a battler, whereas Clinton is the man who got away with the Monica incident. As we would say in martial arts, Obama is only efficient in one range, the high ground, but Clinton can fight in every range from the high ground to the dirty trenches.

    It might make an interesting poll to ask if Bill could stand again, what would his rating be.

  14. Obama was being ‘Presidential ‘ . Coming after Clinton was a tough act but he did well enough . As Obama pointed out ‘boringly’ for some the current economic mess was in the making for the better part of a decade .

    What he can achieve or indeed what Romney can achieve in the next Congress /Senate will depend on whether either has a sufficient majority in either house .Its unlikely that either will and given that the USA is now polarised between cultist extreme right wing Tea Party Ayn Randian Republicans and the Democrats and thats a recipe for another 4 years of stasis and gridlock .

    By which time 2016 current economic woes will have been resolved /transcended or not .And in the event of the latter the USA may implode into economic and political chaos 🙁

    Obama will trounce Romney in the TV debates and Biden will have a less easy bout with Ryan but assuming he can avoid any major gaffes should pull through .

    Last nights speech was primarily for the committed base of the party and from that viewpoint it did the business .

  15. Romney will lose the election and the Republican Party will probably move even further to the right thus setting the stage for even more division between the extreme right wing ideologues and lets be straight religious nutcases and racists , and the rest of America .We can only hope that enough Americans will remember their better natures and the values that enabled the USA to become the ‘hope ‘ that it held for the rest of the world .

  16. Ruarai

    Grateful for an explanation of the middle class posters; I know the middle class will determine the election but there’s more to this than that. Is their middle class the same as ours, does it encompass all etnicities, etc etc

  17. @Greenflag, in my opinion, I don’t see a rightward movement in the Republican party after this election. That may be my own myopia regarding the local party. I mean, how do you get to the right of Todd Akin?

  18. Obama has so far increased the US national debt by 5.4 trillion dollars, which is an increase of 50% since he became president. I think he should get another term just so that we can see if it actually possible for one president to double the national debt and thereby completely bankrupt his country. My bet is that he is more than capable of acheiving this awesome feat.

    Apart from his abject failure to bring the national debt under control, he has greatly added to the hidden unfunded liabilities from Social Security, Medicare and the prescription drug programs which it is estimated amount to a staggering 120 trillion dollars.

    It’ll be interesting to see if Americans are dumb enough to vote for a future as debt slaves to the moronic whims of big government squanderers such as Obama or whether they recognise that they can’t keep spending money that they don’t have.

    It’s not the bullshitters like Clinton or Obama who have to worry about the debts they dump on US taxpayers. They’ll earn millions giving speechs about how great they were while the dumb smucks who voted for them collect food stamps.

  19. Anyone who believes the Republicans will better manage the debt isn’t reviewing their current proposals or those of previous Republican administrations. Clinton actually found a way to work with a Republican congress to run the government at a surplus for a few years, btw. If that is bullshit, gimme bullshit every time.

  20. So did Biffo & Bertie: it’s called increasing government spending to unsustainable levels during the boom years. It looks good on paper (nice balanced books and low debt to GDP ratio) and the punters are happy but it the kicker comes in debt and higher taxes when economic activity reverts to a non-boom level.

  21. I think the main aim for the DNC last night was actually to shore up the weak spot which is how Biden has been portrayed over the last few years. Note how many times JB mentioned that when the tough calls were made he was in the room, not outside paying the pizza guy. He goes in to the VP debate now a bit more of a serious player – not quite able to slap Ryan around like Quayle was by Bentsen but enough to hold his own.

    The floorfight over Israel (and something about God that seemed to get the GOP tweeters all upset) was dreadfully handled though – pretty much on par with the GOP’s handling of Ron Paul not that the people who laughed at that last week would admit it.

  22. A Republican administration is no safeguard against overspending, to put it mildly. See Reagan/Bush/Bush…

  23. Alias ,

    ‘Obama has so far increased the US national debt by 5.4 trillion dollars,’

    Of which 4 trillion is because of unfunded or untaxed for war mongering in Afghanistan and Iraq initiated by Bush at the same time as he reduced taxes ? Now how much more fiscally irresponsible can you get than that ?

    For those with a longer time reference the Reagan /Bush Senior 12 years in power resulted in a quadrupling of America’s national debt and Bush junior only managed to double the national debt in his 8 years .

    Americans would indeed have to be dumb to elect the leader of a religious cult who as recently as 1979 when Romney was presumably an adult with the reason to match . discriminated against African Americans and his Church members were busy ‘baptising ‘ dead Jews without their consent or that of their families .

    Neither he nor Ryan are fit to run a diverse country like the USA and in particular because they represent that section of USA society which bears the brunt for the current economic recession the worst since the 1930’s .

    Romney is an empty suit and nothing else . As Clinton put it Romney’s recovery policy is to double down on trickle down and anybody with half a brain knows how that misnomer has worked for the USA economy .

    At least Obama has a plan to reduce the deficit whereas Romney’s plan is to increase the debt if elected by reducing taxes on the wealthiest Americans ? As to where he Romney will reduce government expenditures ? Nobody knows -not even the Republican party and they won’t say either which has got to be a warning sign for the 98% of Americans who don’t earn $200,000 or more a year .

    As for driving the wealthy capitalists overseas by raising their taxes ? No problem . They should be made to hand in their USA passports. They can get them back when they repay the IRS all those corporate taxes they avoided by ‘outsourcing ‘

    You can bet your bottom dollar that if Romney had to choose between his American passport and his overseas bank accounts in the Cayman Islands it’ll be bye bye American suckers in two shakes of a lamb’s tail 🙁

    The American Church of Mammon /Mormon is probably the most sophisticated bar perhaps the RC Church in the matter of tax avoidance and all kinds of financial skullduggery . It was not for nothing that the Ogden Standard Examiner reported ‘the cultural empasis in the Mormon Church that equates financial success with spiritual success and an unquestioning allegiance to authority figures ,may partly explain why 10,000 Utah investors have been swindled out of more than $200 million during the last decade ‘

    Salt Lake City has been described as the nation’s ‘stock fraud capital ‘ ‘a leading centre of financial shenanigans ‘ and the ‘sewer of the securities industry ‘

    above quoted from Kevin Phillip’s ‘ Bad Money ‘ pp 94 .

    And Phillips was a former advisor to George Bush Senior .

    Trusting Romney with USA finances is about as smart as trusting Bernie Madoff with your retirement savings 🙁

  24. It doesn’t really matter which Clown wins the White House. Their scripts are already written !!

    Only the gullible and easily lead,think a US Election is worth staying up late for !!


  25. “Of which 4 trillion is because of unfunded or untaxed for war mongering in Afghanistan”

    Which resulted from 9/11.

    Which resulted from Bill Clinton flunking the opportunity to take out Bin Laden.

    A liar and a snake oil salesman who set the template for toilets like Tony Blair.

  26. Lodger,

    Interesting view. I saw a poll somewhere over here recently which indicated that if Clinton were running this time, he would win hands down over Romney.
    He can never stand again, of course. The US Constitution forbade more than 2 consecutive terms until a few years ago when it was changed to make it 2 terms total in a person’s lifetime. (Not to suggest that a dead former president could run).

  27. I think he should get another term just so that we can see if it actually possible for one president to double the national debt

    It’s possible, George W Bush did it.

    It’ll be interesting to see if Americans are dumb enough to vote for a future as debt slaves to the moronic whims of big government squanderers such as Obama or whether they recognise that they can’t keep spending money that they don’t have.

    The historical trend, since 1980 and Reaganomics, is that Republicans increase the deficit and Democrats reduce it.

    Here’s a handy table. You’ll note that when there’s a Democrat in the White House, the deficit is usually falling. When there is a Republican, the deficit is usually increasing. Also notable is that, with the exception of Obama, Democrats since the 1970s seem to have a consistent record of reducing debt as a % of GDP, whereas Republicans have a consistent record of increasing it.

  28. “I saw a poll somewhere over here recently which indicated that if Clinton were running this time, he would win hands down over Romney.”

    Mr Joe,

    I wouldn’t doubt it. The US electorate are dumber than dog shit and the British electorate are not that far behind them.

    Romney is a header too btw. Hopefully Obama will romp home.

  29. I think the pattern last few times has been around 25 percent or so of those who are eligible actually vote in the Presidential election, or about half of those registered to vote. If you can get 14 or 15 percent of those eligible voters to buy your product, you can win yourself a landslide.

    Sad. Very sad.

  30. @ mister joe ,

    I believe kevsterino is mistaken and your take i.e half of those entitled actually vote .Last time I believe it was more than half and Obama won with a 10 million vote majority approx . But in the November 2010 mid terms the Democrat turnout was way down which enabled the Republicans to win the house and thus stymie any Obama policies .

    I think Kevsterino’s 25 % of the electorate is the minimum number of votes a candidate needs to win the Presidency given turn out rates of circ 50% and allowing for third and other candidates taking some of the votes . I think Obama won with 27% iirc last time . Turnout will be critical especially women voters the young and minority groups .

    It looks like Romney is only going to win the older male white vote , the Mormons and perhaps a few hispanics but a lot less than George Bush and he will get close to 0% of the African American vote .

  31. My apologies. Previous number are grossly in error.

    Overall, 146 million people were registered to vote in 2008, an increase of approximately 4 million people since 2004. So, about 203 million eligible, of whom 146 million registered to vote.

    The total votes for President in 2008 added up to 131,463,122. So it isn’t nearly as bad as I wrote previously. Sorry to all and it just goes to show, never discount the possibility that I’m full of it ;o)

  32. The San Antonio mayor, Julian Castro, looked a guy to keep your eyes on.

    Romney’s foreign bank accounts will take its toll. That stuff doesn’t play well with Americans and quite rightly too.

  33. Agree, andnowwhat. That, and his refusal to release his tax records, will be played up big time. Someone said that American electors are dumb; I happen to disagree, they are no dumber than any others and one thing most do not like is someone who does not pay his or her fair share.

  34. Joe

    People tend to forget that America is a continent with each state having an individual identity and issues. One thing the Democrats hit magnificently was something common to all states, those serving in the military and veterans. It must never be forgotten that the Republicans almost left those men and women without a wage.

    Aside from his personal finance issues, Romney’s public record hands President Obama more amunition than any man would know what to do with. I just hope the message gets across.

  35. The Republicans can’t win without Ohio . The ‘demographics ‘ are also heavily slanted against a Romney victory . Romney is attracting a virtual 0% African American vote -McCain got 6% .And the only Hispanic vote which could make a difference to Romney is in Florida among some sections of the Cuban Americanos who are Rubio supporters . The rest of Hispanic America is solidly 90% pro Obama and even more strongly this time than in 2008 because of Obama’s stance on the ‘immigration ‘ issue . Among women of all ‘races ‘ Obama has majority support and according to one report he Obama needs only 36% of the ‘white ‘ vote to win would seem to put the final nail in the Romney Ryan GOP coffin . Those facts added to the still potent anger at the banksters and gangsters of Wall St and Romney’s penchant for outsourcing jobs and off shoring and tax avoidance on a scale that most Americans can’t even imagine -all points to a solid Obama victory not by as much as against McCain but by enough to enable the political anoraks to have a reasonably early night when the votes are counted.

  36. Don’t count out the efforts of the Republican party at voter suppression in key swing states.

    It may just give Romney the election.

  37. ‘Don’t count out the efforts of the Republican party at voter suppression in key swing states.’

    A stupid and ill conceived strategy and likely to backfire . The incidence of voter fraud in the USA is so miniscule and insignificant that the Republicans have in fact shot themselves in the foot on this ploy. Their hamfisted and arrogant moves have just energised the ‘minority’ and poor voters to come out and vote whereas some might not have bothered . Trying to pull that stunt just a few months from an election suggests ‘desperation’ .

    And now Romney is backpedaling on Obamacare reform as he realises that he has lost the argument for complete repeal . You can expect that the GOP campaign will start to implode big time as the internal self recriminations begin as to who has lost them this election . Did anybody say tea party?

    As for Obama being a socialist and leftist ? Given the current extremism of large sections of the GOP -Obama could be accused by members of his own party as being a Rockefeller ;Liberal Republican from the north east USA now an almost extinct species akin in it’s electoral prospects to a Scottish Tory !

    Romney’s only hope is for Obama to be impeached for having a Hawaian birth cert !

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