The Rhetorical President

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CommonDreams.org

The Rhetorical President

I’ve been having a hard time getting a fix on our new (though no longer quite so) president. 

I know my friends on the left will think that’s just because I’m hopelessly naive.  Ironically, I expect the good folks on the right (who exist along with that adjective mostly as a theoretical proposition, but you get the idea) would fully agree with this statement, perhaps the only thing in the world the left and right all have in common. 

But even that agreement would be short-lived.  For the former group, I’d be naive to see Barack Obama as anything but yet another agent of Capital, adding to the fine efforts of Reagan, Clinton and Bush in advancing yet further the interests of the American oligarchy. 

For regressives, on the other hand, I’m a fool-and-a-half not to see Obama for the “socialist”, “communist” or even “fascist” (they can’t quite seem to get their ideological slanders straight), that he plainly is. 

The folks on the right are insane, of course.  But that’s hardly news.  They are also increasingly desperate to find anything to hit this guy with.  “He gave the Queen an iPod!” He bowed to the Saudi King!” “He went to a play!” Wow.  Apart from everything else,   I must say I appreciate their willingness to cling so heartily to their own little adventure in political suicide by each week reminding the tens of millions who didn’t get it the first time around why the last eight – if not thirty – years have been so harrowing.  Thanks for the public service, guys.  The world will certainly be a better place without you! 

A lot of the critique from the left is pretty legitimate, I would say, notwithstanding the continuing possibility (or, many would say, total fantasy) that the president is playing three-dimensional chess, while we mere mortals continue to perceive him in the context of our grossly limited Flatland of a mere two.  In other words, it remains at least technically possible that Obama is a true progressive, but he’s just strategically far ahead of the rest of us, and therefore realizes that he can actually accomplish a heckuva lot in eight years, but only if he resists the pressure to throw long passes on every down, and instead moves both incrementally and cleverly.  Sanity through the back door, you might call it, and god knows the American public isn’t famous for quickly recognizing good ideas when they see them. 

Moreover, even if that is mere wishful thinking, the truth is that he has begun work on some progressive initiatives that cannot be fully dismissed.  At least not yet.  This is the first president since World War II, I’d say, who approaches other countries with a degree of respect and sincere desire for comity.  He seems at least somewhat serious about national healthcare, a societal omission that, in 2009 (or even 1959), seems laughable only if one happens to live anywhere but America.  Over here, getting real health care is still a big deal politically, and presidents move on this project at their peril, so I give Obama some due here.  He is also moving to end the war in Iraq and close Guantánamo.  He may be returning some regulatory sanity to the finance industry.  He seems to be inching toward energy and environmental solutions that make at least some partial sense. 

The items on this list of progressive achievements – and let’s bear in mind again that we are still talking about a presidency that is not yet six months old – have several things in common, unfortunately.  There aren’t very many of them, there’s no bold commitment to any of them, they are all as of yet still in the domain of undelivered promises, those promises sometimes mask far less progressive actual policy, and – given what is not on the list – they are to some degree the exceptions that prove the rule of the president’s AWOL true progressive bona fides. 

Then there’s the regressive stuff.  The governmental secrecy, even about the crimes of a previous administration.  The civil liberties policies that are hardly distinguishable from his would-be monarchical predecessor.  (“America does not torture”?  Thanks, Barack.  Where have I heard that before?)  And, most sickening of all, the continued serving up of the commonweal’s assets on a platter to the insatiable predators of Wall Street.  Even in the midst of a devastating economic collapse that their greed engineered.  Even by using the very means of supposed rescue from that collapse to facilitate further unchecked, unregulated and even unmonitored gluttony.  This is something less than inspirational stuff, I’m afraid. 

So far, then – to recapitulate – we have a gross accounting of what he’s doing, what he’s not doing, and what he’s doing that he shouldn’t be doing.  “But wait”, as they say on late-night infomercials, “there’s more!” A final series of Obama sightings falls into the category of rhetorical contributions.  I am not – thankfully – Chris Matthews, who once felt a tingle run up his leg in listening to Obama speak.  I’m not a groupie or a True Believer, and absolutely don’t want to be either, with respect to Obama or anyone else.  But I confess that more than once now this guy has really floored me with his speeches.  (He has also disappointed as well, as at his inaugural, and when I saw him in person campaigning in New Hampshire.)  But when he’s on he’s really on, as I first especially noticed with the Philadelphia speech on racism.  I was also impressed with some of the content of his Arizona State commencement address, as well, and really taken by what he did in Cairo last week. 

I find this a little troubling and puzzling, given what appears to be his less than impressive record on the ground, as described above.  I think this disconnect – seeming or real – is worth exploring. 

First, it’s really important to understand what’s not happening here, and that is a case of cheap theatrical style covering for substance.  Obama, who is widely noted for his oratorical powers, is nearly the antithesis of the flamboyant speaker.  He isn’t a blowhard like the last president, he doesn’t feel my pain like the one before that, and he doesn’t play at rock star like, say, John Edwards.  He reads verbatim his carefully crafted speeches – much of the content of which is written by others – off of Teleprompters (a fact which somehow incenses regressives, much to my great amusement and delight), with hardly a change in volume throughout.  His delivery is not given in a monotone, but neither do his inflections change a lot.  Only his cadence really offers any variation, and only sometimes, borrowing as he does – but only just a little bit – from the African American church pastor’s stereotypical style. 

This distinction between content and form is important to understand, because what it means is that he is really not so skilled an orator at all.  He is winning us over, to the extent that he does, with content, not so much style.  If there’s any doubt about this, try to imagine – though it is difficult to bear, to be sure – Obama reading any of the many speeches George W. Bush gave during his eight year long cowboy-impersonator-in-the-Oval-Office run.  Would one-tenth of the people who admire Obama’s speeches have the same reaction to him delivering a Bush howler?  I doubt it. 

And that’s a good thing.  It means that Obama is speaking to the reasoning capacity in our heads, not the fear swishing about uncomfortably in our guts.  It reflects well (or, at least, better) on us, that we’ve finally grown up enough to prize, somewhat, intelligent political discourse rooted in logic and evidence, a maturity that has been sorely lacking in American politics for a long time, and at obscenely great cost here and especially abroad. 

It may absolutely be the case that his rhetoric is still just rhetoric, however thoughtfully constructed.  And there are one or two scenarios, discussed below, in which this hollowness, if it were so, could prove disastrous for both him and us. 

But consider, apart from those particular unfortunate circumstances, just what is accomplished by this abrupt shift in the content and tone of public addresses, moving from the last president to the current one.  I think there are four huge consequences, and I think to a certain degree these apply independent of what, if anything, this president delivers policy-wise. 

First, at the most basic level, there is the content itself.  The power of the presidential bully pulpit should never be underestimated.  Indeed, this power to persuade is, in most situations, the most effective weapon in the presidential arsenal, notwithstanding the fact that it is nowhere enumerated in the Constitution, and wasn’t much in the minds of the Founders, either, who contemplated for the presidency – and got, for most of American history, up until FDR – more of a chief clerk subservient to Congress than a national leader and primary mover of policy. 

Obama is a bit confusing at this level.  He often appears to be considerably more progressive than he is, or even than are his words.  This perceptual trick has much to do with him being young, black and fresh (Biden was right about that part), but much more to do with him not being Bush.  The last president not only made time stand still while history marched on, he actually bent the national arrow backwards.  Obama, by simply barely catching up with history, is therefore taking a great leap forward from where he found the country he inherited – but it’s not really much of a real jump, from the longer historical perspective. 

At the same time, though, the guy says that Iraq was a war of choice.  He says that America has made mistakes in its past.  He says we need national healthcare.  He told graduating students at ASU that the pursuit of wealth – heretofore the very essence of our horrid little national ethos – represented an impoverished ambition.  He went to the Islamic world and talked with them as equals, rather than lecturing to them as a superior. 

This stuff really matters, because it does literally persuade people.  In general, it seems a fundamental part of human nature that many people just want to be led.  Probably this is an intellectual laziness more than anything else, or maybe they’re working too hard trying to hold together their middle class perch with duct tape and fraying string, but whatever the cause, the psychology is pretty clear.  On any given issue, presidential rhetoric at its most basic level of persuasion can really matter, especially to the many people who prefer to let someone else do their thinking for them. 

It also matters on another level, as well.  Presidents can frame politics better than anyone else in the political sphere.  They can have more impact on what issues are even on the table in our political discourse, what constructions of those problems are within the bounds of legitimate consideration – and, ultimately, policy outcomes as well – than anyone.  Think, for a dramatic example, of Truman framing the Cold War for a still isolationist country, or Kennedy putting the space race on the map, where it hadn’t really existed previously.  Obama, as well, has a unique potential to make us care about certain issues and not others, and to get us to think of those issue from a certain angle as opposed to alternative framings.  That’s a power that is often subtle, but always huge. 

A third level of significance here is the strategic.  I don’t know to what degree careful analysis of these repercussions underlie the rhetorical choices Obama makes.  But what I do see, over and over again, is that the combination of his thoughtful, centrist, arguments, coupled with his calm delivery and unflappable demeanor, have been devastating to regressives at home and abroad.  This is why you see these unbelievably childish attacks on the president that have nothing to do with substance, by the likes of Beck, Limbaugh and Gingrich.  The president is staking out eminently reasonable positions (far too ‘reasonable’, actually), and making entirely moderate appeals to the public to support him.  On the right, at least, this leaves hysterical ad hominem critiques and fabricated stories of failure as the only recourse.  Of course, that garbage comes from habit, as well.  For decades now, it’s worked rather effectively.  But the public has moved on, even if regressive losers cannot seem to help themselves from smearing again.  I hope they do a lot more of it, actually.  I think every tirade of this sort effectively stokes their scary base of frightened old white men, while at the same time shrinking that base by alienating the middle.  Like Bush said to those bad, bad men who were evildoing in Iraq, when it comes to the right acting stupid in public, I say, “Bring it on!”. 

The effect is similar abroad as well.  How much less plausible to ordinary Muslims do the right-wing religious rants of bin Laden and the Taliban seem in the wake of Obama’s initiative in the Islamic world?  Bush was the radicals’ great gift.  But even they couldn’t believe their astonishing fortune when the moron went completely off the deep end and invaded Iraq.  Obama, on the other hand, is just the opposite, even apart from his middle name and personal history.  Watching him go to Cairo, admit America’s past mistakes (well, sorta - they were more like crimes, actually, but hey), and acknowledge the legitimacy of Arab aspirations in an honor-obsessed and simultaneously self-regressing part of the world – this had to have been bin Laden’s worst nightmare.  Indeed, some are arguing that Obama’s speech was already a factor in the significant turn represented by this week’s elections in Lebanon, a big defeat for Hezbollah. 

Fourthly, and finally, there is the nature of how we engage politically – or what might be called the character of the meta-discourse – to consider.  To choose just a single but very apropos dimension, we can have a mature national dialogue, or we can have an adolescent politics, complete with embarrassing bursts of explosive hormonal irrationality.  In some ways, I think this will be Obama’s greatest gift to America, and likely – because of its subtlety – the most unnoticed and therefore unsung.  Barring major scary events or crises, it’s hard for me to imagine the country, having finally tasted something akin to adult discourse, returning to the darkly comical days of Bushism.  I doubt I’m the only one who finds viewing video clips of the Boy King in action from the last eight years incredibly cringe-inducing, regardless of whether or not one agrees with the content of his speech.  Here was a cheap politician, of transparently severe emotional retardation, haranguing the country about the two-dimensional cardboard world he wanted us to believe we inhabit, as if he were Britney Spears lecturing a class of college students about the wonders of Santa, like they were kindergartners.  “Santa!” “Presents!” “Reindeer!” After four or eight years of Obama, will Americans outside of the country’s few remaining erroneous zones ever again find that horrid and condescending tripe tolerable, let alone compelling? 

All of this suggests that an Obama presidency might in many ways be well worth the price of admission – however disappointing at the same time – based on the rhetoric alone.  If all he ever did, for example, was to reorient what we expect from ourselves and our politicians with respect to the how of politics, rather than the specific whats, that would represent an enormous contribution, even while we’d still need to recognize as well the missed opportunities to live up to his full potential.  Think about the Founders and the Constitution.  Their brilliance wasn’t in stuffing the document with answers to all the political questions that could ever arise.  Indeed, their brilliance in part was in not trying to do just that.  What they did instead was to create a structure for each generation to use in answering its own questions.  Similarly, what if Barack Obama marked the historical dividing line between an old America with a political maturity level of four, and a new one at eight?  That alone would be a huge contribution. 

There are serious risks to the rhetorical presidency, however, as alluded to above. 

First, at some point – especially during a crisis, and most especially during multiple crises – people want results.  In Obama’s case, for example, his presidency will probably live or die on the basis of the economy – or at least, on the basis of the public’s perception of their economic vulnerability.  But, more generally, a steady diet of words unmatched by achievements is thin soup indeed, even given the relief it provides in contrast to eight years of slurping thick and polluted sewage in a cup.  Just ask Tony Blair.  After eighteen unremitting years of Thatcher and Major, he got away with doing very little of the things of real consequence to British voters for a long time.  But it would have been a lot less of a long time, had the prospect of more years of Conservative rule not been voters’ only viable alternative to Labour.  Before long (and before he über-foolishly mortgaged his entire political legacy on George Bush’s sick adventure in Mesopotamia), Blair began to be perceived as a too-slick-by-half used car salesman.  That could also be Obama’s fate. 

An even darker scenario for the president would entail the public concluding that, not only do his actions not match his words, but they in fact contradict them.  There’s already good reason to come to this conclusion.  Particularly if one looks at his economic and civil liberties policies – this is a guy who even as a candidate voted for the telecom immunities bill that he had previously promised not only to oppose, but to filibuster.  Obama too often talks like Bobby Kennedy but governs like George W. Bush.  That’s a big disconnect, and one that could have a nasty bite to it should a surly public catch on at some point.  This would entail more than disappointment with empty rhetoric.  This would be anger at being lied to, perhaps all the more impassioned for the very reason of previously raised expectations emanating from the president’s laudable elevation of the political discourse. 

In short, Barack Obama may be an impressive president, even if he does little.  But he also puts at risk his greatest asset – the power of his rhetoric – if he doesn’t deliver more than just words.  The two are independent of each other in many ways, but only for so long a time. 

No president since FDR has come to office with so much crisis on his plate and so much potential for greatness associated with his leadership in response.  Few have come to the office as intellectually, emotionally and politically well-equipped to do some real damage, either, despite Obama’s general lack of experience (which both history and common sense teach us is overrated, anyhow). 

If I had to guess right now, I’d bet that he is going to be a very mixed success as president.  If I had to guess, I would expect that he will in most every case favor half-measures, even when a crisis fairly well screams out for bold action, and even when the public could readily be persuaded or – worse – already is. 

But I also think he will make some highly significant contributions as the rhetorical president of our time.  Assuming the disconnect between his words and his actions doesn’t undermine him completely, this is nothing to be sneezed at, for sure. 

Yet it would be everything in the way of disappointment for many progressives. 

But that would be a mistake on both sides. 

Obama’s for failing to live up to both his potential and his historical moment. 

And ours for failing to recognize the massive power of rhetoric.

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (mailto:dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.

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