Is Obama still a great communicator?

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 5, 2012 

— Barack Obama’s soaring 2004 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention sparked speculation about whether he might run for president himself someday. As a candidate in 2008, his speeches brought millions to their feet – and to the polls.

So when President Obama takes the stage at the convention Thursday night to accept a nomination for a second term, the expectations will be considerable. And his challenge more complicated: The economy is weak, unemployment stubbornly high. Republicans paint him as feckless and ideologically misguided. The ardor of his Democratic base is noticeably cooler than in 2008.

Obama himself acknowledges that he hasn’t been as effective a communicator as his reputation would suggest. He said in a recent interview that “the mistake” of his first years in office was “thinking that his job was just about getting the policy right.”

Policy is important, he told CBS, but he added, “The nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.” He called it a legitimate criticism that he hasn’t delivered “the story that tells us where he’s going.”

The result of not creating a finely honed narrative of the administration’s accomplishment has created a “lot of haze” around what it’s done, said Simon Rosenberg, the founder of NDN, a center-left research center. “The administration needed to bear down on two or three essential story lines and pound it for months and months. If you’re going to tell a story, people have to know where we are and where we’re going.”

While Republican Mitt Romney spent much of his convention speech introducing himself, voters already know Obama. But to give him another term, they need to be able to trust him and to think that his vision for the future is one that they share.

“His primary job is to make it clear to people what’s going to happen if he gets four more years,” Rosenberg said. “He needs to give them a powerful reason to re-elect him.”

Obama adviser David Axelrod said the expectations for soaring oratory were “something (Obama’s) lived with since 2004” and that he’d will make a case for re-election, with substance as much as style.

“He will meet the oratorical test, but he’s eager to make sure it’s not just that he says it well, but that he says what needs to be said,” Axelrod said. “He has to make his case, and he has to make clear what the choice is about and where we need to go as a country, and what his vision for the future is.”

The speech is likely to be as much an appeal to the undecided voters in a few swing states as it is about rekindling the spark among a dispirited base.

“We want to fortify those who are supporting us and persuade those who are still making up their mind,” Axelrod said. “Those folks are going to determine the outcome of this election.”

Some convention delegates hope that the president will take a cue from the first day of the convention and endorse its enthusiastic embrace of liberal causes, including gay marriage and abortion rights.

“The Democrats are not shy anymore,” said Jean-Baptiste Charlot, 71, an Obama volunteer and gynecologist from Miami, who’s attending the convention with his wife. “I hope Barack Obama seizes the opportunity to really project himself – to defend the health care system and shut off those critics.’’

Critics have posed a challenge for Obama, who’s had to adjust to the political reality of partisan gridlock, said Denise M. Bostdorff, a professor of communication who studies presidential rhetoric at Ohio’s The College of Wooster.

Obama’s speeches often have aimed at seeking consensus, Bostdorff said, “finding that level where we can transcend.” Against a divided Congress, however, “that rhetoric doesn’t work particularly well and it can make him seem ineffectual,” she added. “If the story you’ve been telling is that people can work together, but you’re finding that difficult to achieve, you’ve got to find other ways politically and rhetorically to connect.”

Another challenge: The president himself raised expectations not just for this rhetoric but also for the promise to change politics. Now, many are disillusioned and skeptical.

“Because he did tell a compelling narrative, many are disappointed that things didn’t happen faster,” Bostdorff said. “The story of what comes next hasn’t been clear. Consistently, there needs to be a message of what these policies have done.”

Obama’s speech is likely to include plenty of invocations of the middle class as he looks to cast Romney as an out-of-touch corporate executive who favors the wealthy over the working class and whose policies would return the U.S. to the past.

On the campaign trail earlier this month in Iowa, the president warned that Romney wants to repeal restrictions imposed on Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis.

“He wants to get rid of regulations, and then what he wants to do is give more tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans,” Obama charged. “The idea, then, is that jobs and prosperity will trickle down on everybody.”

Though the speech probably will be far from the sunny vision he delivered in 2004, Obama can’t only criticize, or, as his strategists put it, “draw distinctions with the other side.” To convince the skeptical, he needs to tout his stewardship and provide a vision of where he wants to go.

He tells crowds on the campaign trail that he’s running for a second term to make sure “everybody has got a fair shot.”

“All these things that make up a middle-class life, they all tie together,” he said in Waterloo, Iowa. “It goes back to that central idea of America, that here in this country everybody gets a fair shot, everybody does their fair share, everybody plays by the same set of rules.”

Erika Bolstad and Anita Kumar contributed to this report from Charlotte.


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