Rhetorical Questions

Who will win the presidential debates? What does each candidate’s use of words say about how he would govern as president? Can Obama’s rhetorical skills lift him to the heights of Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan—or will his speechmaking do him in? After watching all 47 (!) of the primary season’s debates, our correspondent has the answers—and some harsh criticism for the moderators.
obama hillary clinton debate
Photo credit: David McNew/Getty Images

IV. The Rhetorical Presidency

Rhetoric is only part of a president’s power, but it’s an important part. Building public enthusiasm for your efforts helps overcome legislative and administrative barriers, as in their different ways Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton showed. Declaring a clear position makes a difference even within an administration. Appointees of the Reagan administration spent less time arguing about the president’s goals and intentions than staffers in some other eras, because Reagan’s speeches were so often designed to say just what the intentions were. I worked for two years as Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter. Many issues had to be fought out at every level of the administration and finally resolved in speeches, in part because he was less comfortable than Reagan in presenting a big, clear, simple summary of his goals.

What if Obama wins? We won’t see him in debates again, or at least not until 2012. Answering questions at a presidential press conference is altogether different from handling them in a debate. The president controls every aspect: he talks as long as he wants; he can look daggers at any questioner who asks him to raise his hand or demands a yes/no answer, or can simply seem amused and incredulous. We’d see Obama on his chosen terrain, as a formal speaker. Everyone knows he is a “good” speaker. But what exactly would that mean for him as president?

In parallel with the debates this year, we have of course seen Obama the formal orator. His skill as a speaker has gotten unusual attention, in part because of the mediocrity of most rhetoric in this era. Hillary Clinton is a skillful debater but at best a workmanlike long-form speaker. The courtroom vibrancy of John Edwards’s stump speeches does not translate as well to formal policy speeches. John McCain’s strength is the one-on-one interview or informal town-hall meeting. His voice, bearing, and expressive range don’t work as well at a lectern.

Obama has the buzz as this year’s great orator—but in itself, that means less than it seems. Few will believe it now, but Jimmy Carter worked audiences like a master as his outsider campaign gathered steam in 1976. Even partially successful candidates—Teddy Kennedy, Mario Cuomo—can do so. My earliest firsthand political memory is of a rally for Barry Goldwater in Dodger Stadium in 1964; 50,000 people were there, and 100,000 eyes were on him the entire time. I even saw Richard Nixon hold a crowd entranced in 1968.

One reason to argue that Obama would be a more successful speaker than, say, Nixon is the way he has already used his eloquence as a political tool. Repeatedly during this campaign, he has gotten himself out of serious political or policy problems with the Big Formal Speech. The most celebrated instance was of course his speech about race relations, delivered at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia on March 18, during the controversy over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, which seriously imperiled his candidacy. Garry Wills, whose studies of presidential rhetoric range from Lincoln at Gettysburg to Nixon Agonistes, compared it in The New York Review of Books to Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech during his run for the presidency in 1860. Each candidate, Wills pointed out, was defending himself against a damaging charge—in Lincoln’s case, that he sympathized with the violent abolitionist John Brown. Each answered the charge but did much more, since both speeches “forged a moral position that rose above the occasions for their speaking.”

Obama’s speeches have been additionally unusual in having a life beyond the moment in which they are given. It’s a rarer achievement than it seems. Bill Clinton could predictably mesmerize those who actually watched and heard him speak. Anyone who merely read the transcript would wonder what all the excitement was about. Garry Wills quoted to me, via e-mail, Cicero’s maxim “The effect is in the affect.” Obama has mastered the performance part and more, because his major speeches are written to be read, rather than just watched and heard. They explain the way he thinks and the values with which he would approach problems as they presented themselves. Obama is the first major candidate since, oddly, Jimmy Carter who could plausibly have had a career as a writer. (Carter’s pre-presidential memoir, Why Not the Best?, was more obviously a campaign document than Obama’s Dreams From My Father, written when he was in his 30s. But both make for compelling reading, and Carter’s post-presidential books, except for his starchy formal memoir of the White House, have been very good.)

When politicians do try to lay out a new thought or policy, they tend to do so from the safety of incumbency, rather than as part of a campaign. For instance: when Carter ran for office, he talked about the importance of human rights around the world. But not until six months into his presidency, in a commencement speech at Notre Dame, did he explain in the fullest sense how the United States could balance an emphasis on human rights with awareness of its practical interests and obligations. It is a speech that survives re-reading 30 years later. (I am biased, having been involved, but Jerome Doolittle was the main writer.) Nothing from his campaign does so. I expect some of the addresses Obama has already given will, whether he is elected or not.

As Hillary Clinton noted at the sourest points of the primary battles, and as John McCain will hammer home at every chance until Election Day, “mere words” are not the same as leadership or effectiveness. The right words can obviously make a huge difference. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan all magnified their power, especially at the start of their administrations, through their ability to explain what they were trying to do. “The only thing we have to fear …,” “Ask not …,” “Tear down this wall”—such phrases changed people’s minds and shaped events.

Rhetoric can distort expectations and create traps, as many critics of British Prime Minister Tony Blair were noting by the end of his tenure. In his book The Kennedy Promise, the British journalist Henry Fairlie made a similar point about John Kennedy. The grandiosity of promises to “pay any price” and “bear any burden,” Fairlie contended, fed a mood of “national peril” and set the conditions for engagement in Vietnam. Woodrow Wilson, as he watched the League of Nations falter, and George W. Bush, who began his second term with a sweeping Wilsonian promise of “the expansion of freedom in all the world,” also suffered from the mismatch between elevated rhetoric and heartbreaking reality. The greatest speech of Bush’s career—his address to a Joint Session of Congress days after the 9/11 attacks—is now a source of heartbreak on its own, since the potential for rousing America to address its domestic and international vulnerabilities degenerated into the all-consuming effort to attack Iraq.

The question about Obama is: If he is elected, where might such uplifting words lead? Of course we won’t know unless we see. But the rhetorical strategies of two of his predecessors provide a clue. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both came into office with zillion-point action plans for the steps they would take, plans they had announced during their campaigns. Reagan’s came largely from the Heritage Foundation; Clinton’s, from decades of what his associates called “The Conversation” about public problems and their likely solutions. George W. Bush arrived with some items in mind—and after 9/11 adopted a long-standing action plan for dealing with Saddam Hussein and reasserting presidential power.

Based on his rhetoric, Barack Obama would arrive not because of support for his list of programs, although he has offered them, but because of support for his cast of mind. His speeches and debate answers show us how he thinks, much more than they reveal exactly the policies he would advance for, say, improving the economy, dealing with the Chinese (where his proposals have often seemed surprisingly crude and ill-informed), or coping with crime or climate change. Every administration turns on the president’s cast of mind: Bill Clinton’s startling gifts of intelligence and even more startling lack of self-discipline; George W. Bush’s toxic combination of decisiveness and lack of curiosity; Ronald Reagan’s sunniness and lack of interest in detail. But for some presidents, cast of mind is a central feature—the person, much more than the plan, represents the promise of the presidency. Obama is one of these.

I am very sensitive to the perils of this approach because the man I worked for, Jimmy Carter, was elected in large part as a national savior—a good, religious, “never lie to you” president to fill the moral void created by Richard Nixon, Watergate, and Vietnam. Charles Peters, of The Washington Monthly, once compared Carter to the figurehead leader of Vichy France, Marshal Pétain. Each man, in this view, offered to save the nation through his own personal qualities. In Carter’s case, those turned out to be no match for the disasters of the late ’70s. For instance: in the spring of 1980, as Carter ran for reelection, the prime interest rate was 20 percent.

Also see:
The Passionless Presidency (May 1979)
The trouble with Jimmy Carter's Administration. By James Fallows

The argument that Obama would be another Pétain-like Carter, offering his noble qualities only to be overwhelmed by ignoble reality, is the deepest fear about him, or at least the one that most resonates with me. The greatest hope is that before his brief time in the U.S. Senate, he absorbed more practical skills and sensibilities than Carter did in Georgia. Michael Janeway, who as dean of the Medill Journalism School at Northwestern knew the Chicago establishment figures who nurtured Obama’s rise in the 1990s, speaks of “the Chicago way”—“getting all the parties together and taking responsibility for finding a solution.” Under the Chicago way, the fact that Obama’s most important speeches are short on eight-point action plans is a strength rather than a weakness: it’s a sign that serious business will be done.

Peggy Noonan compared this approach to that of the Kennedy administration. “JFK and his people came into the White House,” she said in an e-mail, “with a faith they could be practical, pragmatic, worldly, that with these attributes they could manage what came over history’s transom. I see Obama as like this: things will come over the transom and he’ll approach them as a thoughtful sophisticate. He’ll think.”

For better and worse, if Obama wins, a thinking president is what we’ll have.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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