Obama’s Failed Debt-Limit Speech

Michael Gerson calls Obama’s debt-limit speech “mystifying,” and I have to agree. Gerson, head of G. W. Bush’s speech-writing team, knows from experience what makes an effective speech (although he unfortunately mixes in objective and partisan criticisms in his column). As Gerson notes,

A presidential address to the nation is a chosen and deliberate political act. It involves the expenditure of limited resources — prime television time and public patience. It is, presumably, the result of a strategy, involving policy, communications and speechwriting staff.

The public, aside from pure political junkies, doesn’t really like to listen to presidents. They like to see images of the president at work–signing bills, meeting foreign leaders, touring disaster areas, and so on–but they have little patience for prime-time speechifying, so they want something good in exchange for their attention (a scarce resource). So every prime time speech has to be top-notch to work. I remember some years back when Bush gave a prime time speech on Iraq just a few months after a previous prime time speech on Iraq, at a time when public support for the war was falling. I expected something significant, a new argument for the war or a new strategy on the ground. But there was nothing but a repetition of the same arguments he’d given previously; the arguments that had already failed to persuade the public. The idea for another prime-time speech was ill-conceived and poorly executed, and it did Bush no good at all. Gerson doesn’t refer to that speech, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t in the back of his mind.*

From this perspective, I think Obama’s speech was a failure, but I think Gerson missed the intended strategy of Obama’s speech, which to me was quite clear: Obama was trying very hard to play head of state, rather than head of government.

This is an eternal dichotomy in American politics that is part of what makes the President’s job nearly impossible. The head of state represents all the people, and conceptually stands above partisanship, whereas the head of government represents his party and so is the essence of partisanship. Most, or at least many, democracies separate these two roles, with the Prime Minister playing head of government and a separate president or monarch playing head of state. As stupid as monarchies are, it’s at least a functional way to separate the two roles.* By combining the roles we give presidents an impossible task–the public wants a head of state, someone to be above partisan politics, so they long for the president to play that role (that’s why they love presidents visiting disaster sites) and can get very upset when he doesn’t.

But it is impossible for a president to not play the role of partisan leader, either. Perhaps no presidents except Washington and Eisenhower have managed to publicly play the role of head of state with very little public demonstration of partisan leadership (and else has ever had the stature to do so, except perhaps for Jefferson?). Not that they weren’t partisan leaders in their head of government role, but they didn’t play it publicly. Eisenhower was at first denigrated by presidential scholars for not being an effective head of government, until Fred Greenstein described Ike’s behind the scenes approach with the phrase “the hidden hand presidency.” We make things worse by demanding that the president be head of government–we expect him to push a policy agenda and despise a president who doesn’t try or doesn’t do so effectively–but by separating the institutions of the executive and legislative we strip him of the tools necessary to lead the government. In fact the institutional position really isn’t a head of government position, but we demand it anyway.

Through the course of long discussions with my Republican ex-congressional staffer friend I have come to the conclusion that Obama tries very seriously to be a hidden-hand presidency, keeping the head-of-state persona out front and the head-of-government persona more hidden. During the health care debate, for example, he famously made little in the way of concrete public proposals (and was excoriated for it), but kept shuttling staff and agency officials to testify before Congress (they need his permission, so clearly what they had to say was in line with his own proposals).

How well this will work for him only time will tell. He clearly doesn’t have anything remotely resembling the public stature of Washington or Eisenhower, so it’s much harder for him to effectively play the head of state role. And in today’s excessively partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill, it’s hard to say whether it’s a more effective approach (because he appears to rise above the partisan bickering) or less effective (because only ferocious partisan gamesmanship can be effective). It sometimes appears as though Obama is playing to win the Lady Byng trophy.

But clearly this was Obama’s strategy in this speech.** He emphasized that Speaker Boehner and many Senate Republicans had supported an approach very similar to what he was proposing, and explicitly recognized that they were making sacrifices to their favored position for the good of the country. That is, he was raising them above partisanship, too. And given the gravity of the situation for the country as a whole, and the fact that historically raising the debt ceiling has been a very non-partisan affair, objectively the President is right to treat it that way.

But was it effective? I think not. It was too abstract at points, rather than sharply focused and with clear statements. It was more of a soliloquy than a motivational speech, when clearly motivation is what is required. By speaking nicely of Republicans Obama may have been trying to ensure they won’t sulk or retaliate, recognizing that he still needs them to get legislation passed. But being nice to them has not really worked well so far (back to the argument about whether gentlemanly behavior can be effective against excessive partisanship)–a point noted by just about everyone so far. Obama granted the Republicans legitimacy, when what he really needed to do was delegitimize them on this issue. When the President goes public, he is trying to rally the country to his side and against the other side, but Obama attempted to rally the public to his side and the Republican side. Certainly he saw this as rallying them all to the compromise side, and against the Tea Party caucus, but that’s too subtle a point for a crisis-moment speech. And he never specifically mentioned who the problem was, just “a significant number of Republicans.” Yes, those of us who pay attention know who he means, but to be effective this speech had to be directed at those who aren’t paying much attention. He needed to identify them much more clearly. He needed to explicitly call them dangerous radicals who are willing to harm the country for their own partisan purposes.

The speech was also badly written, as well as badly delivered. It mentions Reagan, as it should, but it doesn’t directly create a juxtaposition between Reagan and the Tea Partiers. It needed to say, “Reagan said X, but Congressmen Smith says Y.” Again, this is no time for subtlety. The situation and the target audience both demand something much more blunt. And the speech is utterly devoid of memorable lines. There were no good applause points, no ringing or resounding phrases that anyone will remember. This was a bland speech for bland times, not a dynamic speech for a critical moment.

And Obama appeared somewhat detached or distracted as he delivered it. I had the impression he hadn’t seen the final text until it appeared on the teleprompter, or that he didn’t really want to be there and was thinking about something else, or that he recognized how bland the speech was and couldn’t figure out how to deliver such a sodden mess powerfully.

And then there was the staging… Good lord, what a mess. Appearances matter; while the symbolism of a speech’s staging has no bearing on its substantive value, but it has great bearing on its actual effect. If the staging and delivery of a substantively valuable speech is poor, the President might as well just stuff that excellent speech into his desk drawer and forget about it; the effect of that generally would be no worse, and could even be better by not opening the President up to as much criticism. So, for those who didn’t watch the speech, look at the picture below.

This is the East Room of the White House. It’s not the first time a President has given a speech there, but in this case the staging is just awful. First, it emphasizes how the room recedes behind him, causing the eye to be drawn past the President’s face toward the back of the room. That leaves the eye searching for a focal point, and those gaudy chairs on the left side of the image pop out (especially on television, where they were much bigger), but when you’re talking about government budgets is it really a good idea to emphasize such ornate objects? Finally, and most egregiously, the lights on either side of President Obama’s head look like horns or flames coming out of his head. At worst this makes him look vaguely satanic, but at best it’s just bizarre, funny, and very distracting. Somebody ought to have been raked over the coals by now for this.

So even though Gerson failed to grasp Obama’s purpose of appearing statesmanlike, his question about what the White House was up to remains a good one. He proposes several possibilities.

1. Obama may really believe he is the great communicator — that merely through the power and magic of his words, he could cause the Capitol switchboards to flood and force Republicans to repent of their foolish opposition to taxes. Obama, however, has provided no evidence of such superhuman rhetorical power in the past. This strategy is delusional.

I have in the past believed that Obama did have the conviction that his speaking aura was capable of moving the public. And Gerson is wrong about their being no evidence for the belief. Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech was phenomenal, and paved the way for him to be a serious candidate in ’08. And what were the primary and general election campaigns except a long sequence of speaking moments that culminated in his becoming president? His rapid ascent was almost solely a product of his speaking ability. And yet he’s never recaptured the magic of his ’04 speech.*** His speaking style, while far better than Bush’s repetitious pattern of simple declarative sentences, is dull, with many awkward pauses within sentences. It is most reminiscent of the lecture style of a rather average college prof. The evidence of his first two and a half years in office should have brought home to Obama’s team, if not to Obama himself, that he is not a new great communicator. But if Obama still believes he is, his team is likely to go along without much effort to deter him.****

3. (Skipping two, which I think is clueless.) Obama’s staffers might not have known what else to do, so they decided to fill an awkward silence by repeating arguments on national television that the president has repeatedly made before. In this case, the administration has thrown away a valuable presidential resource on a whim.

I think this is quite likely, and in fact would view the White House very sympathetically if this was their motivation. The President has to do something to break the stalemate–either give in or break them. Obviously he doesn’t want to give in, but it’s not at all clear how to break them. Gerson criticizes Obama for not offering any new proposals, but what serious proposals could he offer that wouldn’t give away even more than he’s already agreed to give away? It would be great if he could come up with some brilliant game-changing deal, but what would that be? Gerson doesn’t make any suggestions, which suggests he can’t think of one, either. Either there isn’t one, or it’s so non-intuitive that nobody, Obama, the White House staff, Gerson, Reid, Pelosi, etc., can puzzle it out. That’s a pretty weak foundation for criticizing the President, and since he has to do something, well, what else has he got right now? Going public has worked for presidents in the past, so even if you don’t have much to say, it’s worth a shot. Gerson is right that Obama has thrown away a valuable resource, but resources are of no value unless they’re used, and time is running out. If he didn’t make use of this resource before the deadline it would be wasted anyway. And because the passing of the deadline and the first ever default for the U.S. is so noteworthy, I think it potentially resets the clock for presidential speeches–he can react to this new event with an “I told you so” speech. So while I agree with Gerson that they did not use the resource well this time, I am very sympathetic; they just didn’t have many options left in the playbook.

4. Fourth, Obama could believe there is raw political benefit to be found in painting Republicans as tools of the rich, unwilling to serve the public good. This approach might make sense after debt limit negotiations have collapsed and the blame game begins. But this hasn’t happened yet.

Gerson is just wrong here, on multiple counts. First, Obama didn’t in fact try to paint the Republicans as tools of the rich, and only a blind partisan could say he did. Obama worked hard to praise Republicans in general, only singling out a subset of them as the problem. So Obama didn’t do what Gerson thinks he did. But I argue that Obama should have done so, because in contrast to Gerson’s deeply flawed strategic thinking, there is value in identifying the other side as the problem prior to the passing of the deadline. If Obama wants to win with the deal he’s currently offering, the only way is to persuade the public that the Republicans are at fault. What possible good does it do Obama to wait until after the deadline has passed? Yes, he ought to continue the blame game in that case, but what does he possibly gain from holding off until that point?

I think Gerson’s suggestions that Obama believes in his power to move people through speech and the administration’s understandable inability to come up with any other strategy at the moment sufficiently explain this speech. And in fact the speech itself was well-timed–if anything, perhaps a bit late, but certainly none too soon. The only thing that’s truly mystifying is why the bungled it so badly.*****

* This is not to say PM’s never play a head of state role, but for them it’s more of a subsidiary role than it is for the president.

** And it’s not to Gerson’s credit that he fails to recognize this. Bush played head of government almost to the exclusion of ever playing head of state, 9/11 excepted, so Gerson may not realize the importance and value of that role.

*** Much like Hubert Humphrey’s 1948 convention speech. Sometimes lightning strikes, but it’s a mistake to think it can be bottled and released in controlled amounts.

**** Those in the Executive Office of the President who serve entirely at his pleasure rarely work up the courage to contradict their boss. The excitement of working in the White House (or even across the street in the Eisenhower Executive Office building), the sense of being in the thick of the real action, is hard for people to risk sacrificing. And even when they do leave it because they are simply burned out, they love it too much to risk burning their bridges. As LBJ aide George Reedy wrote in Twilight of the Presidency, there is no one to tell the President to go soak his head.

***** Of course my claim that they bungled it is something of a prediction. I am predicting the speech will not move the Republican position at all. The great thing about this type of prediction is that time will tell if I’m wrong. If you disagree with my analysis, you’re effectively making a contradictory prediction, and in the event you’re right please take the opportunity to gloat at me.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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10 Responses to Obama’s Failed Debt-Limit Speech

  1. Michael Heath says:

    I disagree with the President’s approach to raising the debt ceiling and therefore have little sympathy for his seemingly desperate ploy to exploit his bully pulpit to get Americans to call up their Republican Congressman to end this insanity. It was a mistake by the President to play the conservatives’ game of conflating spending and tax revenue policy with establishing appropriate credit limits for what is and will soon be spent. My position, the president should instead have demanded a bill on the debt ceiling sans budgetary controversies or any other extraneous issues, would have also have better positioned the president as the head of state making the argument for Republicans to end this insanity rather than his appearing more as head of the Democratic party with a competing budget plan.

    However the most distinguishing observation the evening of his speech was not my differences with the President on how to solve this problem, but instead comparing the quality of his argument in his speech (separate from his policy) from that of Speaker Boehner. Speaker Boehner’s major’s premises were almost all false, astonishingly so. So from this perspective my analysis features not the wrong-headedness of the president’s approach, that’s trivial given the opposition’s arguments and approach, but instead that one of the two parties are basing arguments regarding a critical controversy on falsehoods coupled to their deep intra-party differences where they show no evidence of being able to come up with a plan that could pass*.

    We’ve long known the Republicans are increasingly relying on dishonest arguments, but it astonishes me when they do it on prime-TV which from my perspective is recently novel for them, i.e., I remember a time when Republicans on Meet the Press and other such shows didn’t depend on the rhetoric they often use in other venues but attempted to be honest on those shows; but over the past three years that seems to have changed where its now anything goes where-ever they are.

    Beyond criticizing the Republican’s incredibly dishonesty which is not novel, I have to wonder what the President was thinking by entering this debate where he concedes the Republicans’ framing for raising the debt limit. Hasn’t he learned by now the Republicans interests have nothing to do with the debt or the nation’s interests and instead demonstrate they’re completely focused on defending current or lower tax effective rates and winning the ’12 electoral season.**

    *Politico Breaking News email at 12:16 p.m.: House Republicans on Wednesday morning were calling for the firing of a top staffer at the conservative Republican Study Committee after he was caught sending emails to conservative groups urging them to pressure GOP lawmakers to kill the deficit plan proposed by Speaker John Boehner. The opposition from the right is the latest sign of deep divisions within the Republican party over how to handle the ongoing debt crisis.

    ** I’m both cognizant and making this point in light of the fact the Democrats are trying to avoid having another debate on the debt ceiling closer to the ’12 election.

  2. Pinky says:

    Time will tell if if the people’s president will prevail or not.

  3. D. C. Sessions says:

    Krugman had a very good point on one problem with Obama’s speeches: “Obama doesn’t, and maybe can’t, do outrage”

    For whatever reason — temperament, investment in a self-image of post-partisanship, etc. — he just doesn’t have that Rooseveltian “day of infamy” presentation that invites the public to share his (presumed) commitment to get off their butts and get involved.

  4. D. C. Sessions says:

    And because the passing of the deadline and the first ever default for the U.S. is so noteworthy, I think it potentially resets the clock for presidential speeches–he can react to this new event with an “I told you so” speech.

    The problem with that is it passes up the opportunity to define the terms of debate. Fox News will be there before him; he may be the President, but they own the channel and don’t have to wait to schedule their message.
    IMHO, when it becomes clear that we’re not going to make the deadline (and I’d give odds against it now) he should go with another, very nuts-and-bolts speech laying out for the public what the Administration is going to do with its limited legal options. A heavy dose of “the United States is a country of laws which bind us all, and the President most of all, and the law is thus-and-so. There is no way the Administration can comply with all of the laws at this time, and so in the absence of Congressional action I have directed ___________ as the least harmful course that the law permits.”
    Otherwise he’ll be stuck playing whack-a-mole with a thousand mutually contradictory indictments.

  5. James Hanley says:

    Michael Heath–comparing the quality of his argument in his speech (separate from his policy) from that of Speaker Boehner..

    I didn’t listen to Boehner’s speech, but in a piece replayed on NPR I did hear him say Obama was “asking for a blank check.” It so enraged me I almost drove off the road. And that relates to your point about mixing the issues of taxing/spending and the debt limit. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I think you make a good point that Obama made a strategic error in accepting that formulation. He should have stuck to the line that he’s just trying to make sure we’re paying for obligations we’ve already committed to, making sure that the “we” was understood as meaning both Congress and the country as a whole.

    D.C.–The problem with that is it passes up the opportunity to define the terms of debate.

    I may not have made myself clear. I didn’t mean that he should wait until after the deadline. That seemed to be Gerson’s argument. I agree that he needed to speak before the deadline to define the terms of the debate (but that he failed to do so, and that he perhaps should have done so even earlier). I just meant, in response to Gerson and in light of the accurate point that a prime time speech is a valuable resource, that it made sense for the President to do so now, not later, and that in this case doing so now does not preclude him from doing it later. That is, he can–or could have, if done right–set the terms of the debate before the deadline, and if necessary still be able to claim people’s attention in another speech after the deadline.

    I think Krugman’s right that Obama doesn’t do outrage well. Perhaps outrage doesn’t fit well with the hopey-changey thing? I don’t really know why, but if ever in his term outrage has been appropriate it was now. Maybe they should have held his dog up with a noose around it’s neck until he got good and pissed. Or maybe they did, and that’s why he seemed distracted. Hell, I don’t even like Obama and his policies and I’m outraged, so why can’t he manage some?

    On another note, is Boehner the least competent Republican Speaker of the House ever, or is he just a victim of circumstances?

  6. Michael Heath says:

    James Hanley:On another note, is Boehner the least competent Republican Speaker of the House ever, or is he just a victim of circumstances?

    Speaker Boehner is a perfectly illustrative example of the two remaining classifications of Republican elected officials on the national stage where both share the same relatively novel feature. Both type of GOP politicos do not merely represent their party’s voters, they are their party’s voters. In the case of Speaker Boehner he’s an ex-businessman who is illiterate when it comes to both economics and high finance. He doesn’t seem to realize this, doesn’t demonstrate he’s sought out expert counsel, and continually does what I observe many business-people do – defectively conflate basic business or home-budgeting principles as if they were financial and economic principles.

    Rep. and Speaker Boehner’s listening to what his constituents want (including his caucus members) with no ability to put it into the context of economics. Even when business leaders were noting their reluctance to invest based almost solely on a lack of demand, Mr. Boehner continued to promote policies that directly oppressed aggregate demand with no cognizance a lack of demand was the primary root cause for a lack of increased capital expenditures or new hires.

    In Mr. Boehner’s 60 Minutes interview he clearly noted he’s intimidated by the President’s understanding of economics. That’s a hoot since the president demonstrates little cognizance of either economics or finance as well in terms of lacking both a formal education and experience which has him practically appreciating these principles. In defense of the president and what Mr. Boehner should have done, is that Mr. Obama does aggressively seek out the perspective of the relevant experts, develops policies in light of and consistent of expert opinion, and has a somewhat rudimentary though abstract understanding of how these principles relate to results and implications.

    I don’t know whether he’s the worst GOP Speaker, I do know he’s representative of his party at the national level and his voting base. From this perspective he’s a defining example of the type of more direct democracy we expected out of the House from the very founding; unfortunately that group’s attributes revolve around a worshipped know-nothing ideology and serial dishonesty where the more one lies, the more lauded they are within their political tribe. In weak defense of Speaker Boehner, I think his determined ignorance is so great I doubt he realizes just how dishonest and emotionally reactive his rhetoric and premises are.

  7. D. C. Sessions says:

    He doesn’t seem to realize this, doesn’t demonstrate he’s sought out expert counsel

    That’s impossible to tell, since inside the Beltway “expert counsel” are like “expert witnesses” in law: you can find one who will tell whatever story you want to hear.

  8. Michael Heath says:

    D.C. Sessions,

    If that were true I think his rhetoric would reflect that; but it doesn’t. So I remain confident in my observation. I think it’s relatively easy to determine what type of sources are influencing a politicians’ argument, the same goes for media opinion writers as well.

  9. Scott Hanley says:

    What utterly baffles me is that no one, not Obama, not Pelosi, not Reid, will ever stand up and say, “We had the deficit fixed twelve years ago!” How can they run from their greatest success and best argument? If I were Obama, I would never quit mentioning this and arguing for a return to 2000 tax levels.

    Right now, I’m ranking the supply side/culture war/Tea Party conservatives as the #5 disaster to hit America, behind Native American genocide, slavery, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. There’s still time for them to win P4, though. *sigh*

  10. Scott Hanley says:

    PS. Make that #6. I forgot that Andrew Jackson’s killing of the second National Bank surely has to go in at #4.

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