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.