Let Obama Be Obama

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published January 21, 2009, issue of January 30, 2009.
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Pity President Obama and his speechwriters, for they are cursed with reputations of great skill and talent as wordsmiths. Imagine the weight they labor under as they begin each speech, look at the blank screen or page, and say: “How can we top ourselves?”

No matter what they do, however, many people will say their work is a fresh masterpiece. Take Tuesday’s inaugural address. Obama could have chosen to burp instead of speak, and people would still have swooned.

But speechwriters (and the bosses they work for) need to hear from the non-swooners like me, especially when a speech is less than what it could have been.

And here’s the thing about Obama’s first speech as president: It was so-so. He has been better — a lot better. His campaign speech was like a perfectly tuned and designed car — runs smoothly, has a sleek finish and is a beauty to behold. By comparison, his inaugural had all the elements of an uninspired family sedan.

Not all inaugurals have to rival Lincoln’s Second. But they all must reveal something about the president who gives it — his principles, his sense of history or his personal story. Great ones are memorable not only because of some artful phrases, but because they operate as an overture to the presidency that follows and carry particular power in the repose of hindsight.

I doubt President Obama’s will pass that test. It sounded more like a State of the Union — prosaic, plodding and careful.

It was filled with a jumble of issues and ideas. None disagreeable, but none memorable. It certainly didn’t shape our sense of the man — at least he had better hope it doesn’t.

It launched on the familiar theme of challenges to be met. And it concluded with a call to service of some vague sort. That’s not good — every speech should end naturally with the answer to “What’s next?” Obama’s speech left that indefinite — a lost opportunity.

In between starting and finishing, the president took us on a tour of raging storms and icy rivers. He invited tyrants to talk if they would unclench their metaphorical fists. He talked about getting our energy from “the sun and the winds and the soil.” Does that mean we can drill, baby, drill? You can see how a lack of definition gives people the wrong idea.

Perhaps most surprising, it was occasionally inelegant. One transition, from thoughts about market regulation to national security, simply started with: “As for our common defense…” Speechwriters are entitled to a few of those here and there. But not in front of two million people who have waited in sub-freezing temperatures for six hours. You’ve got to warm them up.

So here’s some uninvited advice to Obama’s speech team: 

Be bold: In the speech, the president rejected extremes on certain issues and ran to an undefined middle position. For example, he pledged to leave Iraq “responsibly.” The defining policy position of the Obama campaign now comes down to an adverb? We can all agree to leave Iraq responsibly. A speaker who sets himself in the vague middle leaves audiences with the comforting illusion of agreement but has won no mandate for action.

Fight flesh, not straw: Remember how cranked up liberals used to get when President Bush built up a somewhat ludicrous criticism of his own policy and proceeded to knock it down (known in the craft as straw man arguments)? Well, there was President Obama, doing the very same thing on Tuesday: “We have chosen hope over fear” and “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Be serious in addressing your critics; they may return the favor.

Let Obama be Obama: There is no presidential biography in recent memory as inspiring as Obama’s. Yet the inaugural referred to Obama’s personal heritage just once, and if you sneezed, you might have missed it. This is an age of personal narrative — your story is your message. Obama’s heritage will always be his ace card.

Focus on Delivery: More than any president in our time, Obama will derive incredible power from his speechifying. People will not only pay attention to his words, they will be drawn to their meaning by his delivery. But on Inauguration Day, he seemed restrained and even unconvinced of his own words. He drew no energy from the crowd. If this is “cool,” fine. But there is a very slight difference between “cool” and “detached.”

Steal: I watched Obama’s speech at Andrews Air Force Base, among a crowd of Bush staffers waiting to see our former boss off to Crawford. Among us, Obama got strong applause only once, for this line directed at terrorists: “You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” It sounded like something straight from Bush’s rhetorical toolkit. And it worked. Even people you abhor can offer you good stuff. Take it when it’s offered — or just take it.

Noam Neusner served as President Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter from 2002 to 2004.

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