Forget for a moment the substance of Obama’s Iraq war speech. A number of observers remarked that he looked plain uncomfortable and that his speech was “flat.” (Said one: “Why bother with a speech filled with the same vague generalizations he’s been saying about Iraq for the past nineteen months?”) And Michael Gerson (his excellent critique should be read in full) notes:
Obama’s speeches are oddly lacking in a sense of historical drama. His manner is always impressive and presidential. His words often are not. For the most part, the president’s language last night was flat and over-worn. The middle class is the “bedrock” of prosperity. We need to “shore up the foundation” of the economy. And when the rhetoric tried to rise, it strained — “a new beginning could be born,” “the steel in our ship of state.” Obama has a tendency to celebrate memorable historical moments with unmemorable speeches. There are exceptions — but this was not one of them.
So too with his BP oil spill speech, which was even more somnolent than Tuesday’s offer. Then the left piled on, distressed by the image of a once thrilling (to them) political figure shrunken and fairly dull.
It is no mystery why in the technical aspects of speech-giving Obama’s skills are so diminished, especially in the Oval Office. For starters, things are going poorly. Obama is — and seems — defensive. He is not a man who has shouldered adversity in public life, and it is to be expected that he now is prickly and tense.
Moreover, Obama has already told us, in a 60 Minutes interview, that he disapproves of “triumphalism.” So the speech Tuesday night, which was to recognize the successful conclusion (conservatives like “victory”) of our military operation after enormous adversity, was restrained, if not cramped. He did have words of praise for the troops, but then he demonstrated in his de minimus praise for George W. Bush that this is really not the standard for evaluating a president. Others, like Juan Williams, have conceded that Obama is not good in a crisis. And unfortunately, right now we have nothing but. Neither in war nor oil spills does he enjoy a comfort zone. He is in that regard the anti–Rudy Giuliani, who thrived in a crisis.
And we come back to the central Obama dilemma: he is much better on the stump than in office. When he goes out on the road in campaign-style gatherings, he may not be substantively any more convincing (e.g., no one has bought the “summer of recovery” despite a bazillion speeches), but he certainly is cheerier and more relaxed. Sitting behind that big desk, he is decidedly neither. Ed Morrissey aptly put it this way: “Barack Obama took office as supposedly one of the most well-read, inspirational figures of our time. With each speech, Obama diminishes in stature, essentially mailing in his efforts and seeming to care little if anyone notices it.”
The Obama phenomenon — great candidate/poor executive — can’t be concealed. When he speaks in the very place that personifies executive power, it becomes all too evident. Perhaps he should keep the Oval Office visits to a minimum and spend his time reflecting on why things have gone so badly. Then he might be able to regroup and rescue the final two years of his presidency.