The Associated Press runs a story today about Cody Keenan, successor to Jon Favreau as Barack Obama's chief speechwriter. The new scribe has an interesting take on his boss's communication challenges:
The White House declined to make Keenan available for an interview. But in a recent Kennedy School interview, Keenan said the 24-hour media environment of cable TV, Twitter, blogs and other competing information sources have made the White House speechwriter's job more challenging.
"With rare exceptions, the bully pulpit doesn't reach as many people as it used to," he said. "Our job is to keep the president's message fresh and arguments compelling even as they've been the same for the past six years."
First of all: mission failed. Not that I'm going to get all high and mighty on the guy. I was a speechwriter in the later days of the Bush Administration. "Fresh" and "compelling" were not words that were often applied to our prose stylings. Most of the words that were used can't be repeated here.
Given his natural talents, however, one of the things that's been surprising about Obama's rhetorical maturation over the course of his presidency is how excruciatingly, four-month-old-magazine-in-your-dentist's-waiting-room boring the man has become. He had a good run during his "take up thy bed and walk" days. Now, however, he seems about as invested in the material as a guy doing two shows a night in Branson.
If Keenan's theory of the case is representative of the thinking in the White House, then Team Obama has this backwards. Presidents don't have to compete for market share. The proliferation of media doesn't mean that presidential messaging gets drowned out; It means that the velocity of the message is dramatically increased. In a media environment where every word out of the president's mouth is going to be repeated a thousand times over, the last thing you want to do is make the president ubiquitous -- exactly what the Obama Administration has done.
It cuts against every instinct in an activist administration like this one -- and against the President's seemingly deathless conviction that his rhetoric is a lever with which he will move the whole world -- but tactical silence may actually be the best option available. Value is at least partially a function of scarcity. If a president wants to increase the impact of his words, reducing the supply isn't a bad place to start. A little less verbal promiscuity -- you can be taken seriously about a Kanye West-Taylor Swift tiff or the national debt, but not both -- could go a long way. But self-appointed lightgivers have a notorious inability to understand the virtues of reticence.