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?