Obama: A good communicator, but not yet a great one

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — He's soared to great heights, moving people with words that put him in a rarified league with such great communicators as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

He's also stumbled, however, turning in weak performances that make him appear to be another ordinary politician, unable to explain his policies in ways that rally people behind them.

This week, President Barack Obama will ask the American people to support his new strategy in Afghanistan, raising the question of whether he can sell the country an escalation of an expensive and increasingly unpopular war that it doesn't want.

"I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we're doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals that they will be supportive," he said Tuesday.

It will be a critical test of his skills as a communicator, a must-have tool of leadership that will help determine the fate of his presidency. It's a test he hasn't always passed.

Obama aspires to greatness, to be a transformational figure who changes the nation's course. He isn't yet, however, in the top rank of American leaders, and he's yet to show that he can move the country his way by matching the promise of his campaign rhetoric to the thorny challenges of his ambitious agenda. In fact, he's lost ground, as his approval ratings and support for key policies such as a health care overhaul have dropped.

There's no doubt that Obama is a skilled and sometimes exceptional orator.

His uplifting vision of a united country in his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention launched him into national politics. A stirring late-night speech to Iowa Democrats in November 2007 helped propel him past Hillary Clinton and on his way to the Democratic presidential nomination. His cool, reasoned talk on race in March 2008 helped stop the political bleeding he suffered after revelations of his pastor's racially inflammatory sermons.

"He's an extraordinarily gifted communicator," said Michael Kehs, the general manager and head of U.S. Public Affairs for the public relations giant Hill & Knowlton.

Cool and cerebral in style, Obama also can be deliberate, even cautious, in his choice of message or in his delivery. He benefits by comparison to his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose shoot-from-the-lip style led him into verbal minefields. However, Obama also might be sacrificing the kind of talk that inspires listeners, and the kind of passion that keeps them eager for more.

His inaugural address, for example, lacked the memorable inspiration of FDR's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" in 1933 or the call to service of John F. Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you" in 1961.

When he talks without a script on a TelePrompTer, Obama the orator can give way to Obama the writer, who speaks slowly, sometimes pausing in mid-sentence to search for precisely the right word. To the eye, the result is a text marked by complete sentences. To the ear, the result can be a slow monotone.

"At his very core, the president's a writer," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House Deputy Communications Director.

"It's reflected in his speech; it's reflected in his books. He often speaks like a writer. Which is why when you read the transcripts; it reads in complete paragraphs. He takes his words very seriously, and he's very thoughtful about what he says. . . . It's born of thoughtfulness, not trepidation."

Obama's delivery sometimes strikes observers as too much thinking and not enough feeling, too much dreaming and not enough striving.

After the shootings earlier this month at Fort Hood, Texas, for example, his first public comments started awkwardly with a "shout out" to someone in the audience. He went on to express sympathy for those who'd been killed and wounded, but no sense of anger or outrage at the gunman.

"He's cool and calm, but sometimes he's a little too cool and calm," said Gene Grabowski, a senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications and an expert in crisis communications.

"Reagan could summon up controlled passion. (Bill) Clinton was a master at conveying passion. It wasn't just the oratorical skills. It was the passion behind it. With Obama, you don't see as much of that."

Obama and his close aides know he can fall flat.

Heading into the critical November 2007 dinner in Iowa, he knew he wouldn't be allowed to use a TelePrompTer and told campaign manager David Plouffe he'd memorize his speech word for word "so it's crisp and delivered powerfully . . . I need to step it up."

Shortly before the Texas primary, Obama "wanted the race to be over more than he wanted to win it, and it showed in his day to day performance," Plouffe wrote in his new book, "The Audacity to Win." "We had become predictable and stale."

Obama also can find himself making mistakes when he's off script.

Such as the time he made fun of the Special Olympics during an appearance on Jay Leno's show.

Or when he was unknowingly caught on tape telling a group of campaign donors that rural whites without jobs "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them . . . "

Or when his first reaction to an altercation between a white policeman and a black professor was to say publicly that the police "acted stupidly," a comment he later said he regretted.

Finally, Obama may have too much confidence in his own abilities, leading him to speak too often in too many venues, risking overexposure and reduced impact.

The first great communicator in the age of mass media, Roosevelt, knew that he had to limit his exposure so that when he did speak, people would stop to pay attention.

"Sometimes I wish I could carry out your thought of more frequent talking on the air on my part," Roosevelt told a supporter in 1942. "But the one thing I dread is that my talks should be so frequent as to lose their effectiveness. . . . I think we must avoid too much personal leadership."

While FDR is known for his "fireside chats" on radio, what's less known is that he held just 30 of them from 1933 to 1944. He never gave more than four in a year — and in three years he gave just one.

By comparison, Obama is omnipresent.

When the House of Representatives passed a health care overhaul this month, for example, Obama commented three times on the vote, first before cameras in the Rose Garden, then in a written statement late that night, then again in the Rose Garden the next day.

"His weakness is that the White House staff overplays his strengths. They are turning him into the commenter in chief," said Kehs, the public relations expert.

"The White House is confusing a silver tongue with a silver bullet. . . .There has to be some aura and mystique. If the president speaks all the time, people don't know when it's important enough to stop and listen."

Despite his frequent talks to the country, both through the news media and via other platforms such as social network sites and e-mail, Obama's failed to build support.

Polls show his job approval rating has dropped — a mid-November Quinnipiac University survey found it dropping below 50 percent for the first time.

Despite his full-court press for a historic overhaul of health care, he hasn't built public support for it, and may have lost some. Polls by the Pew Research Center found opinion virtually unchanged from July through October, with Americans leaning against the proposals. Gallup polls found support dropping by 9 points in the past two months.

White House advisers insist that Obama isn't overexposed, and that a changing media landscape requires a far different approach than the one used by FDR.

"It used to be that you did one thing and everybody saw it," Pfeiffer said. "It doesn't work that way anymore. You give people multiple opportunities to watch the president, which is why he does things in nontraditional outlets."

He noted that the audiences for newspapers and network TV have shrunk, and that people get news from hundreds of sources. Plouffe said that when Obama gave his speech on race last year, most people who saw it didn't watch it live on TV but watched it later on YouTube.

"For FDR, that's all he had to do to reach everyone," Pfeiffer said. "We have to do a whole heck of a lot more to reach the same group of people."

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