More than any President in modern history, Barack Obama won the White House on the combination of his writing and speech-delivery talents. His 2004 Democratic Convention address propelled him into the national spotlight, laying the presidential predicate. When his 2008 campaign hit potentially fatal rough patches, Obama brilliantly used speeches not only to deal with the crisis but also to propel the campaign forward to a new level.
His November 2007 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner speech in Iowa jump-started a floundering campaign. Time magazine observed that it was so effective that afterwards even John Edwards’ campaign manager, Joe Trippi, was chanting its catch phrase: “Fired up, ready to go!”
He did it again in March of 2008 when his campaign seemed about to implode over his long relationship with the minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. At Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he managed to defend Reverend Wright as a former Marine who had served his country and a service-oriented pastor who had served his community, while distancing himself from his hateful rhetoric. Then he shifted into a long discourse on race in America. This was a very difficult dive from a high board into a small pool and he pulled it off with remarkable grace and presence.
There were other big moments: election night in Grant Park, his remarks in Tucson for those murdered in the Congressman Gabby Giffords’ shooting, his Newtown memorial speech.
So perhaps it was inevitable that the power of his speeches would diminish, if only because his audience became more jaded and ever expectant of fresh magic. The first time a president speaks at Brandenburg Gate it is historic. The second is just a traffic jam.
But some presidents grow stronger rhetorically in the job as the gravitas of the office lends depth to their words. Few would argue that FDR’s and Lincoln’s best moments were campaign speeches. But in the sixth year, the presidency seems to be diminishing the power of Barack Obama’s words. That weakness was on full display in the speech he gave to European allies in Brussels on Wednesday.
In a moment that called out for a rallying cry of moral strength, the president fell back on his favorite rhetorical construct of weighing both sides of an argument. While this can lend a certain intellectual honesty to an argument, few have ever run to the cry of “on the other hand.”
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