Obama's Next Big Speech: 3 Ways to Measure Its Success

I'll be watching in a few hours, on what will be Wednesday morning (of Dragon Boat Festival day) in Beijing, with these matchup questions in mind:

- Can he match himself? The good thing about a series of successful high-expectation speeches is that they've been successful. The bad thing is that the expectations bar keeps going up. Can the President "do well," by his own standards, with a big speech yet again? In specific: Can he use this occasion to re-establish his command of the situation and the topic, as he did in the famous 2008 "race" speech? To shift political momentum in the direction he wants, as I would argue he did with his Joint Session address and other major speeches on health-care reform? To introduce a way of thinking long-term about a policy matter, as I think he did with his Prague speech on nuclear weapons, his Nobel prize acceptance speech, and his speech on defense-strategy last month at West Point? If the day after the speech we're saying, "Ok, I see where he's headed," that will be a sign of success -- on his own terms. Otherwise....

- Can he match Ike? By which I mean, can he begin using this moment to do what the country really, truly, most urgently and lastingly needs? I am not talking about demonstrating his emotional "outrage" or "toughness" about the problem. I mean using this catastrophe the way Dwight Eisenhower used the shock of Sputnik's launch in 1957, to rouse the nation to deal with problems it should have addressed decades earlier. In the present case, that of course means beginning the radical shift away from dependence on oil the U.S. should have started (a) 35 years ago, during the first OPEC shocks, or (b) nine years ago, after 9/11. This is the time for a big national effort, triggered by a big external calamity. We utterly squandered the last such opportunity. This one?

- Can he match.... Jimmy Carter?  Walter Shapiro of Politics Daily -- for disclosure, my colleague in the 1970s both at the Washington Monthly and on the Carter White House speechwriting staff -- has just argued that the real model should be Jimmy Carter's much-derided "malaise" speech from the summer of 1979. Many political savants know that Carter never used the word "malaise" in the speech (which neither Shapiro nor I was involved in -- I'd left by then, to join the Atlantic). Less known but more important is that the speech was highly popular when delivered -- and looked bad in retrospect only because a few days later chaos of other varieties befell the Carter Administration. Kevin Mattson has the whole story in this book; I also address it at some length in this recent article. Carter talked tough about energy policy and government gridlock and was well received for a while. His speechwriters should at least pore over that incident.

His own; Eisenhower's; and Jimmy Carter's -- improbably enough, these are the three big sets of rhetorical shoes for Obama to fill. I'll check in sometime tomorrow after I've seen what his first-ever Oval Office address looks and sounds like.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. 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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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