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.

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

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

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 Guantanamo. 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

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

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

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 uber-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

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.

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