For a man who likes to pooh-pooh White House optics, President Obama can be a master of political theater. Watch this video from his speech in Missouri on Wednesday and notice how he dismantles House GOP opposition. Calm, confident, and charming, Obama was Harry S. Truman with a megawatt smile. Give ‘em hell, yes, but not too much. No anger or scorn, no condescending lectures that too often course through Obama’s speeches and turn off all but hardened Democrats.
Is this the start of something new? (Keep reading for why it’s probably not.)
(0:01): “So far this year, Republicans in Congress keep blocking or voting down just about every idea that would have some of the biggest impact on the middle-class and working-class families.” This is about halfway through his speech, and he’s just getting warmed up.
(0:17): “They’ve said no to raising the minimum wage. They’ve said no to fair pay.” Now comes the boilerplate list of liberal initiatives blocked by the conservative House. What’s interesting is the tone. Obama shrugs. He smiles. He even chuckles while making his case against the GOP-led House. He’s explaining, not berating, and I suspect the former is a more effective way to persuade than the latter.
(1:44): “That’s when we act — when your Congress won’t.” This is an interesting use of pronouns. “We” rather than “I,” and “your Congress” rather than “the Congress.” He is making an argument bigger than himself and dragging his audience into it. It’s also a tight talking point: eight words that evoke Truman’s 1948 reelection rant against a “Do-Nothing” Congress.
(4:10): “We could do so much more if Congress would just come on and help out a little bit.” Now he turns on the well-practiced charm. “Just — just come on. Come on and help out a little bit.” Beaming, he gestures toward the stage, rhetorically waving Republicans aboard. “Stop being mad all the time.” The partisan crowd cheers, his smile widens. “Stop. Stop. Stop just hatin’ all the time.” Dropping the “g” is a politician’s way of sounding just like us, and for Obama it might soften the edges on what is otherwise a harsh attack. He’s calling House Republicans haters. “Come on. Let’s get some work done together.”
A caveat: This rhetoric is ironic, if not hypocritical. Obama despises GOP leaders at least as much as they do him. He wallows in his frustration, his actions too often guided by his darker emotions. Let’s get some work done? That’s rich. Almost as soon as he assumed the presidency, Obama abandoned his fundamental promise to create a bipartisan working environment in Washington.
But style matters in politics. Obama would still be in the Illinois Senate if didn’t matter — and if it’s not too late to rescue his presidency from its second-term malaise, a new style might be a starting point.