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.