Obama Makes His Closing Argument, One Speech at a Time

For all his pioneering use of technology and social media, the president ultimately prefers to deliver his message from the lectern.

President Obama gives the commencement address at Howard University in Washington on May 7.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
May 15, 2016, 8 p.m.

After spending his first seven years in office redefining the bully pulpit over multiple media platforms, President Obama has gone back to basics, heading to the exits with a heavy emphasis on set speeches that his aides hope will shape both his legacy and the campaign to replace him.

Since the start of his final year as president, Obama has undertaken a remarkably aggressive round of speeches, determined not to fade into the shadows just because a bruising presidential campaign is hogging the spotlight. In only the first four-and-a-half months of the year, he has traveled to a mosque in Baltimore to talk about religious tolerance, returned to his old haunts in the Illinois General Assembly to discuss the state of American politics, visited Florida to hail the economic recovery, journeyed to Cuba, England, and Germany to talk about key parts of his foreign policy, and gone to Howard University to analyze race relations. From the White House, he also has given speeches on guns, terrorism, and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

More major speeches are planned, including a likely look at his pivot to Asia when he visits Vietnam later this month.

It is in some ways a return to his roots for a man who burst onto the national scene with a memorable keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. It is also recognition by the White House that formal speeches still are the most effective way to communicate with the country as a whole, even for a president who has pioneered the use of Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat to reach niche audiences.

“This reflects the president’s strength,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest in an interview. “He would tell you this himself, that he is far more comfortable and far more effective making an argument in a 40-minute speech than in a 140-character tweet.”

What is more surprising is that this run of speeches is unprecedented in modern American history for a president in his eighth year. None of the post-World War II two-termers—Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—were nearly as aggressive or outspoken on their way out. In 1960, Eisenhower by this point had given one important speech trying to define Republicanism and set the stage for that year’s campaign. And he had spoken out on defense spending. In 1988, Reagan gave few major addresses.

In 2000, by this point, Clinton had given an important speech on the arrival of the Information Age. By the end of the year, he offered more views on the impact of globalization, the ways the fledgling Internet was changing the world, and the arrival of the 21st century. In 2008, Bush gave some important early speeches about the fight against terrorism. But his final months were swallowed by the looming collapse of the financial system.

In 2016, Obama has signaled an unwillingness to cede the stage and an eagerness to shape the upcoming stories about his legacy even though he insisted in his first speech of the year, on Jan. 5 in the East Room, that “I’m not looking to score some points,” noting, “I’m not on the ballot again.”

He is not willing to let others define his presidency. The theme of all the speeches could be captured by one sentence in his Feb. 26 remarks in Jacksonville, Florida, on the seventh anniversary of the economic recovery act he pushed through Congress. “Sometimes,” he said, “people also forget where we’ve been, and if you forget where you’ve been, sometimes you don’t know where you need to go.”

His message, as he told the Howard graduates last week, is that “America is by almost every measure better than it was when I graduated from college. It also happens to be better off than when I took office.” Lest anyone miss his message, there is one paragraph repeated in three of the president’s speeches. As he worded it in Germany, “If you had to choose a moment in time to be born, any time in human history, and you didn’t know ahead of time what nationality you were or what gender or what your economic status might be, you’d choose today.”

He repeats this, said Earnest, to “convey the optimism the president has for our country and for the world.” Some Republicans, though, bristle at the speeches. Rush Limbaugh called the Howard speech “hideous.” Ken Khachigian, who wrote speeches for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, said, “We are witnessing the lame-duck liberation of Obama” who is coming off as “smug and brash and impudent” in the speeches. He added, “We’re seeing that side of him that you see when he plays basketball, talking smack.”

Earnest dismisses the criticism that the speeches are showing a different side of the president. “These speeches reflect a remarkable amount of consistency in the president’s priority-setting,” he said. “He is advocating for the same kinds of things in his last year in office that he’s been fighting for from the beginning.”

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