“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” First articulated by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, this political maxim has been repeated in both Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign and an episode of NBC’s The West Wing. Yet articles such as “Where has Obama’s inspiring oratory gone?” by Washington Post columnist and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson are popping up throughout the media, accompanied by accusations like the claim by David Ignatius of The Washington Post that President Obama in office can sound “surprisingly pedestrian.” The expectation that Obama sell policy with the same enchanting parlance that characterized his 2008 campaign overlooks contextual differences in Obama’s audience and duties. Any leader must be a situational speaker, and the presidency demands and emphasizes more professorial moments than campaign-season rhetoric. Even so, President Obama’s poetry appears as often as the office allows.
Campaign-time Obama: Poetry and Prose
In the 2008 election, then-Senator Obama was hailed as an unlikely hero—his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention catapulted him into the public consciousness as the newest young orator. As Harvard Kennedy School professor of political communication Thomas Patterson explained in an interview with the HPR, captivated audiences and excited media outlets perceived Obama to be the perfect communicator, regardless of his setting. According to Patterson, “many people were putting him up on Rushmore before he even arrived in office.” In all of their high hopes, the public and the press failed to anticipate the substantive difference between moving voters while campaigning and pushing policy while in office.
Speechmaking on the campaign trail is a unique breed of insanity: candidates deliver rousing stump speeches designed to rally already-enthusiastic crowds and provide endless media sound bites. In most presidential campaigns, Obama’s included, a predictably invigorating style of rhetoric emerges out of election season—one that presidential rhetoric scholar Martin Medhurst characterized in an interview with the HPR as “a mythic form of discourse.”
Media patterns only add to election season frenzy. Former White House speechwriter Adam Frankel described to the HPR a level of “media saturation” that is not present once a candidate takes office. “Everybody was dialed in and watching,” he adds, “so everyone was familiar with the lofty rhetoric.” On the surface, this seems counterintuitive: one would think that people would pay more attention to the president than to a candidate. However, Robert Schlesinger, author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, agrees with Frankel, telling the HPR that the nation’s “collective attention span” shrinks during a presidency. What Schlesinger refers to as the “natural focus” of the general electorate, created by fiery, competitive speeches and media dramatization, quickly fades once a president takes office. In other words, people often miss out on the uplifting presidential oratory that takes place after the election results are in.
Disadvantages of the Bully Pulpit
Midway through Obama’s first term, the media’s characterization of his personality began to shift. He was no longer portrayed as the liberal visionary from the campaign season. Obama was now faced with both substantive policy concerns from his base and a perceived swing in his rhetoric away from the message of hope and harmony that moved voters in 2008. Op-eds theorized about how and why the president had lost his magic. The change was mistakenly attributed to Obama himself; criticism was too often framed as an attack on his abilities, proof he had never been the wordsmith many believed in. Gerson argues in his Washington Post column that the president’s supposedly “workmanlike utterances” stem from “a president lacking in inspiration” who has fallen short of “exaggerated expectations.” However, as former White House speechwriter Bob Lehrman noted in an interview with the HPR, “some people don’t realize the difference between running for president and being a president.” In reality, Obama’s context may have changed, but his oratorical skills have not.
The 2012 campaign, too, lacked the glitz of 2008. A disenchanted public longed for the powerful oratory that had inspired record turnout four years prior. Schlesinger observes that, although Obama was “more moderated in his tone” during his second campaign, this too is part-and-parcel of running as an incumbent president. Similarly, Patterson points out that Obama could hardly use the same “high rhetoric” of change as he did in his first election. On the contrary, he explains that a second presidential run requires defending past achievements and explaining policy accomplishments, an approach that “doesn’t quite allow for the same type of speechmaking.”
In office, media saturation evolves, and not every sentence gets total attention. Frankel claims that “people stopped listening to all the major speeches he gave in the same way” once the senator became the president. Frankel points to Obama’s July 2013 address at Knox College as an example. This particular talk lived up to Frankel’s insistence that, despite their dry media coverage, many of Obama’s term-time speeches were “more inspired than a lot of what he said as a campaigner.” The address included lines reminiscent of candidate Obama. Borrowing a phrase from Carl Sandburg, Obama inspired his audience with uplifting declarations such as “we will find a sky of tomorrows for the American people and for this great country that we love.” The media, however, understandably focused on the specific economic policy the speech was intended to push.
In the sections of the Knox College script directly addressing economic policy, the president was forced to stray from this “sky of tomorrows” language, instead discussing fluctuations in manufacturing employment rates and specific congressional tactics. As Wesleyan professor and scholar of presidential rhetoric Elvin Lim told the HPR, in governing “you need to be specific … you lose the lyricism, and with that the valuable space in which likeability grows.” Despite this obstacle, though, plenty of eloquence still goes unnoticed between the policy details doled out by the commander-in-chief.
Lehrman cited the president’s September remarks to the nation on Syria as another example of overlooked rhetorical power. The speech included both the administration’s concrete plans in Syria and what Lehrman described as extraordinary “use of visual detail” uncharacteristic of most presidents. Moving imagery of “a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk” stood out, alongside a stirring call for the country to defend its ideals. Though Obama briefly exhibited his high-flying rhetorical prowess, news coverage centered on the policy implications of the speech. No longer the young senator of 2008 covered primarily for his ability to captivate a crowd, Obama spoke as a president, providing the media with more significant things to analyze than his moments of rhetorical glory.
Accordingly, President Obama’s rhetoric became the subject of skeptical commentary from both sides of the aisle. Democrats urged him to take back the visionary mantle he bore during the 2008 campaign, and Republicans crowed that the supposed wordsmith had lost his power. But has the poetry really gone away? Understandably, the president spends less time on soaring visions for America than he did as a candidate. Despite the demands of presidential speechmaking, however, both the Syria and Knox College speeches prove that he is still eloquent—even though the media doesn’t highlight it.
Where Has the Magic Gone?
The biggest paradox lies in our expectations: while the electorate yearns for the poetic one-liners acceptable during campaign season, it also demands to hear details and plans of action from a leader in office. Though the two aren’t mutually exclusive, in serious policy speeches figurative language and flowery wordplay are often inappropriate and ineffective. As Frankel explained succinctly, “Barack Obama speaking to a rally in Iowa is very different from Barack Obama, the president, speaking in the East Room of the White House.” When powerful language is present, as in the Knox College and Syria speeches, it doesn’t typically appear in the widely-heard media sound bite describing the details of a policy plan. By the nature of the office, the president cannot perpetually deliver impassioned oratory and have it make the news in a positive light.
Considering his role, Obama has far from lost his touch. On the contrary, his rhetoric has echoed, whenever possible, the lofty style that won his first campaign. The “together” refrain in the 2012 inaugural address reminded listeners of the visionary senator who united them in 2008, just as unnoticed moments of speeches throughout his presidency continue to provide the emotional pull voters crave. The foundation of the electorate’s beloved soaring rhetoric remains; the oratorical difference lies in the increased need for details, in the policy-oriented explanations required of a serious governor. The true rhetoric of Obama, the denouncement of a divided America and the language of hope, has thrived in moments like the Knox College speech. Though the abstract idealism of his early career could not realistically sustain a presidency, Obama has still managed to govern with more poetry than most.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia