Can an American president call for a speech on prime time television to talk about the weather? We came fairly close to a test of this proposition last night. Americans, who have been hearing almost daily from the president over the last couple of weeks, were now bidden—should one say summoned?—to listen to him in an official Presidential Address, a format that is normally reserved for solemn or important announcements.
Barack Obama pronounced a speech that contained nothing new, and certainly nothing important. The single “action” he called for was to urge Americans to light up the switchboards of Republican members of the House to compel them to support his approach, which includes tax hikes, to address the debt crisis. Apart from the unseemliness of the president trying so blatantly to impose his will on a co-ordinate branch of the government, this plea was completely irrelevant. From the moment talks about of a grand bargain ended last week, Congress–including the leaders of both parties in both chambers–had agreed to move beyond a plan that contains “revenues.” The president, of course, knew this, just as he knows that in the end he will likely sign such a bill.
The real aim of the speech was accordingly to position himself for the next election as the great compromiser and to paint the opposition as extreme. It was a political speech in the guise of an official presidential address.
Will it work? Will the president appear in the public’s eye—and appearance is what this was all about—as a larger figure after this speech than before? There is reason to think that he will not. Obama spoke for fifteen minutes, three times longer than House Speaker John Boehner. But many will think that John Boehner had three times the better in the exchange. Obama displayed all of his rhetorical prowess, his grand style and his characteristic eloquence. The subject of his speech, in line with almost all of his big speeches, was himself—in this case, how he alone is a figure above mundane politics, a Great Compromiser in the midst of a three ring circus. (Other speeches in the past, for example, had Obama as the one voice of civility in a climate of political incivility, or the one post-partisan in a world of partisanship.) All the elements were in place for one of those larger than ordinary mortals’ performances, but the gambit seems to have fallen flat.
Nothing is more difficult from a rhetorical standpoint than to pronounce a speech that follows immediately upon a presidential address. The president holds all the advantages—the setting, the dignity of the office, and, of course, the personal recognition. He has no need to introduce himself. Almost all of the respondents in these jousts have been bested, sometimes disastrously, with the most favorable result being a draw. Boehner’s performance stands out as the exception. His address was simple and direct, while the president’s was mendacious; his was earnest, while the president’s was self-serving; and his was about the crisis, while the president’s was about himself. Obama strove mightily to get above politics, but failed. Boehner did seek political positioning and succeeded.
Obama, the master orator, has now been defeated on his own chosen ground. Will this leave the emperor without his clothes?