Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Look Who’s Talking

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, isn’t impressed with President Obama’s speechifying.

But Obama’s largest rhetorical failure has come at times of crisis — when a president’s words matter most, and the time to craft them is most limited. His reactions to the Fort Hood murders and the Christmas Day attack were oddly disconnected from the emotions of the country he represents. His speech at Fort Hood was strong on paper but delivered with all the passion of remarks to the Chamber of Commerce. His recent White House speech on the terrorist threat was bureaucratic and bloodless. Both grief and resolve seem beyond his rhetorical range. People once thought Obama could sound eloquent reading the phone book. Now, whatever the topic, it often sounds as though he is.

His defenders, once again, elevate this into a virtue. He is an emotionally disciplined grown-up. But at least since Reagan, the rhetorical expectations of an American president have included not only mental toughness but empathy — the ability to wear the nation’s emotions on his sleeve. People want their president to be both the father and the mother of his country — a talent shared by politicians as diverse as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (whose speeches I once helped write).

Obama’s model, instead, is the coolness of Coolidge. It is old-fashioned. It may even be admirable. It is hard to call it effective. With every speech, a realization grows: A president lacking in drama may also be lacking in inspiration.

This is ridiculous, especially from someone who was actually paid to write for a man who couldn’t even pronounce “nuclear.” And if I remember correctly, Republicans had a great time making fun of Bill Clinton’s emotional responses and “I feel your pain.” They mocked him for his displays of empathy, calling it phony and contrived. So now we have a president who shows grace under pressure and suddenly that’s a flaw?

Mr. Gerson isn’t the first pundit to chide Mr. Obama for his apparent lack of hysteria. Last Sunday Maureen Dowd did the same, basically saying that having a president who is calm and in control is a bad thing; what we need is a national tear duct.

No Drama Obama is reticent about displays of emotion. The Spock in him needs to exert mental and emotional control. That is why he stubbornly insists on staying aloof and setting his own deliberate pace for responding — whether it’s in a debate or after a debacle. But it’s not O.K. to be cool about national security when Americans are scared.

Wrong. That is exactly what we need when Americans are scared. We want our leader to be calm and collected in response to things like a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, not running around in circles. Matt Yglesias puts it very well: “Reassuring children is a job for parents. Treating adults like they’re little children is, perhaps, a job for newspaper columnists.”

HT to Steve.