Barack Obama Is So Awesome that His Awesomeness Impedes His Eloquence

Or … something:

… Obama isn’t a phrasemaker. I have the sense that he disdains the glibness of sound bites, for very good reason but also out of an incorrigible and self-undermining need to rise above politics. (What else but a sound bite was “with malice toward none, with charity for all”?) If Obama is the best writer-President since Lincoln, it’s not because of an extraordinary gift for language—it’s because of his breadth of experience and depth of thought.

The fact that Obama has given so few truly great Presidential speeches didn’t turn out to be politically fatal, but it’s not irrelevant. It’s made him more vulnerable, put him more on the defensive than he should have been. He’s never given himself a phrase or sentence to wield in the crunch, conveying an idea that’s simple and yet profound enough to embed itself in the public’s mind, and that truly defines his political vision. Obama is too complex, too nuanced, too elusive, and too careful, for words that stick.

Got that? If the president doesn’t leave us with any memorable phrases in his inaugural address, it is only because he is “too complex, too nuanced, too elusive, and too careful” to do that kind of thing. But he may still be “the best writer-President since Lincoln” because of his “breadth of experience and depth of thought,” so if we get no memorable phrases, it may only be because we don’t match the president in the “breadth of experience and depth of thought” business, in addition to not being “complex, nuanced, elusive, and careful” in our listening.

Of course, George Packer is able to give us examples of Obamaian speeches with memorable phrasing, but he tells us that those speeches were memorable because they represent instances in which the president has “been challenged as a thinker or touched as a man.” In the event that you are wondering why the president cannot be “challenged as a thinker or touched as a man” in advance of his inaugural address, it is because the president’s “strongest political impulse is inclusive, and inclusiveness rarely makes for great rhetoric.” I leave it up to readers to decide whether that means that in speeches which produced memorable Obamaian phrasing, the president wasn’t being particularly inclusive. I have trouble believing that to be the case; after all, Packer praised then-state senator Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, in which the future president stated that “[t]here’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.” Sounds like an attempt at inclusion to me, and it certainly became a memorable phrase, but Packer assures us that inclusive Obamaian rhetoric doesn’t make it into our long term memory banks.

As one can readily tell, Packer has pretty much tied himself up in knots with his argument. But I think I know what’s going on here. Packer writes for the New Yorker, and he and everyone else working at the New Yorker are big Obama fans. I’m sure that they want the president to hit it out of the park with his inaugural address, but they may not be sure that he will be up to the task. So they are downplaying expectations for him. They have the freedom to do that, I guess, but I wish that Packer and his friends would stop portraying themselves as writers and journalists. Because if my suspicions regarding their motivations are correct, they are nothing more than spinmeisters.

  1. genferei
     they are nothing more than spinmeisters.

    I think you are far too kind. ‘Spinmeister’ not only  imputes some sort of ‘meistership’, but also self-knowledge: a ‘spinmeister’ presumably knows they are spinning, and what it is they are spinning.

    The Obamanians of the press show no signs of this. They have the critical faculties of a Teen Beat reader. And that’s just the Pullitzer-winning ivy league graduates among them. Could any indictment of the culture be more damning than such an article?

  2. BlueAnt

    Wow, since when did expectations need to be lowered in advance for an inaugural address?  For campaign debates, sure; for the State of the Union address, maybe; but a re-election address for a man devoid of mystery?

    I’d suggest the Obama camp is getting desperate, but last time we said that Nate Silver yelled at us.

  3. Matt Travis

    The “media” is Soviet style Leftist propaganda, and sycophancy at this point.  We can survive rotten (communist) presidents, but when the media, academia, and entertainment are goosestepping in lockstep, it makes the fight exponentially more difficult.

  4. Indaba

    Well observed.

    I watched Argo last night. There are frequent scenes with the posters of the Ayatollah’s poster in the culture office of Iran, the airport and othe public places. the main character is obviously impacted and affected by them.

    The American Embassy’s poster is covered in darts and one of the mauradering Iranians goes beserk at the sight of thus cheekiness.

    The zealots in Argo reminded me of the the american Left who seem to have forgotten the purpose of politics. They are setting up their own leader who can not have his political posters covered in darts.

    They have forgotten that the political leader, serves America.

    Very odd and many reasons for it. But dangerous.

    When leading newspaper journalists write this sort of worshipping nonsense, they are moving out of journalism territory into worshipping fanaticism, and they are setting up an Ayatolleh of their own making.

  5. Larry3435

    When did the word “nuance” come to mean lying about what you believe and then doing the opposite of what you say?  Latest example being Obama professing his belief in Second Amendment rights, just before doing everything he thinks is politically feasible to ban guns.

  6. Eeyore

    I think part of this effusive hagiography is an attempt by their side to make “the curtain” that much thicker and heavier so that they themselves will have a more difficult time should they, in a moment of intellectual “weakness,” consider an attempt to look behind it.

  7. Indaba

    Did you see the article in Slate on how Obama must now crush Republicans. Do these writers ever see how hypocritical they appear?

  8. Cold Friday Warrior

    What does it matter what the president says in his speech? Who takes him seriously? His words rarely match his actions, so what he utters is either insincere or insignificant. He will package empty policies in pleasing wrappers or bad proposals in benevolent blanketing. Match the high-flying rhetoric of his 2004 Democratic convention speech with his last press conference where he says the GOP wants to starve children. This is not a man to bring us together, those words were just the previews to get us into the theater; he has shown little intent for following through with them. He could paraphrase Thomas Jefferson’s “We are all Democrats; We are all Republicans” or he could reprise Abraham Lincoln’s “We are friends; we must not be enemies” and it would not matter a whit 20 seconds after he uttered it as he would go back to saying the GOP is a group of evil white men who want children to die either from starvation or gun violence. One should pass on the speech.

  9. Group Captain Mandrake

    In the latest Ricochet podcast, Peter Robinson asked Andy Ferguson what Obama should say in his second inaugural address.  After some consideration of the implications for the Vice President, he replied that Obama should say, “I fire the Vice President and now I resign.”

  10. tabula rasa
    Group Captain Mandrake: In the latest Ricochet podcast, Peter Robinson asked Andy Ferguson what Obama should say in his second inaugural address.  After some consideration of the implications for the Vice President, he replied that Obama should say, “I fire the Vice President and now I resign.” · 4 minutes ago

    This reminds me of a great Fred Imus story.  Before he died a couple of years ago, Fred was talking on-air to his brother Don (the controversial talk show host).  

    During the conversation, Don asked Fred what he thought of a recent Obama speech.  Fred said, “I only listened for a couple of minutes, then turned it off.”  Don asked why.  Fred said, “As soon as it became clear the #%@* wasn’t going to resign, I didn’t figure there was any reason to listen.”

  11. Illiniguy
    Pejman Yousefzadeh:

    “…I have the sense that he disdains the glibness of sound bites, for very good reason but also out of an incorrigible and self-undermining need to rise above politics. (What else but a sound bite was “with malice toward none, with charity for all”?) If Obama is the best writer-President since Lincoln, it’s not because of an extraordinary gift for language—it’s because of his breadth of experience and depth of thought.

    The fact that Obama has given so few truly great Presidential speeches didn’t turn out to be politically fatal…”

    So few great Presidential speeches? Name one great Presidential speech he’s given.

    “With malice toward none, with charity for all” is a phrase that could have only been written by a humble man. Whatever Obama’s “breadth of experience” may be, it’ll never be enough for him to attain that level of humility. The only way Packer can compare Obama to Lincoln is to diminish Lincoln by describing what’s perhaps the greatest speech ever given on American soil as a compilation of sound bites. I have no use for this man, send him hence to trouble me no more.

  12. KC Mulville

    There are only so many speeches you can make centered around the word “I,” but Obama has already given them. 

    My guess is that he’s going to take the oath of office, then perform various feats of hand puppetry. The headline next day will declare that he hit it out of the park.

  13. D.C. McAllister
    C

    And presidential coddling continues…. The creepy thing is that there’s a collective narcissism that binds the media to Obama, which makes them coddle themselves even as they coddle him.

  14. Frederick Key

    The president is a kind of nincompoop with a certain low cunning that can easily be mistaken for intelligence by those who want to believe. As a speaker he has a fine voice and a mastery of cadance that dazzles those who don’t pay attention to the words. So they walk away thinking “What a great speech!” and can’t remember a word of it.

    Lincoln, if I remember Lincoln at Gettysburg correctly, had a high, reedy voice, not at all the powerful baritone that his face and height would suggest. It was not his voice or his vocal tricks that made his speeches so powerful.

    I’d say the lunatics are in charge of the insane asylum, but we’re not all crazy, as one would expect in an insane asylum. (Well, I could be crazy, maybe, but surely not you.)

  15. doulalady

    Yuck.

  16. Illiniguy
    Frederick Key: The president is a kind of nincompoop with a certain low cunning that can easily be mistaken for intelligence by those who want to believe.

    Can I use that line if I give you attribution? It’s perfect.

  17. Ontheleftcoast

    I guess we’re just not smart enough to perceive the truthiness of the whole thing… 

    “Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.”

    The Emperor’s New Clothes

    Hans Christian Andersen

  18. Aaron Miller

    I am beginning to think Republicans and pundits need to spend more time lambasting Reid and Pelosi just to battle the dangerous perception among liberals that the Presidency under Obama is all that is necessary for domination. The more they look to him and only him, the less thought they give to the separation of powers and Constitutional restraint.

  19. Quinn the Eskimo

    Obama does not give good speeches because he has no interest in being clear.    He can’t really get up and say that he wants to push the United States further into European-style socialism.  Or at least he won’t. 

    Look at Packer’s dismissal of Lincoln’s second inaugural.  “What else but a sound bite was ‘with malice toward none, with charity for all’?”  What else?  It is the statement of the President’s intentions for his second term.  It is a theme of the address.  One would think that someone like Packer, who is paid to be a writer, would recognize that.

  20. Jordan Wiegand

    To what breadth of experience and depth of thought does this article speak?  I suppose being POTUS helps with the breadth of experience claim, but depth of thought?  Where are his treatises, epistles and great works ready to stand the test of time?

    It is more like Obama is too nuanced to say anything.  If he is too careful, he is too careful lest he actually say something with real meaning.

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