A (Qualified) Salute to President Obama’s Style

Style matters in politics, and a fresh one might help Obama break out of his malaise.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
July 31, 2014, 6:55 a.m.

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.