Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The myth of Obama the Great Speaker

In the wake of President Obama's disjointed press conference in Paris—which featured nonsensical claims about fish swimming in the streets of Miami—some columnists and others in the media have wondered if the President is losing his "gift of gab," his much-vaunted prowess at public speaking.

Since Obama was elected President—even before, really—one of the most commonly heard platitudes used to describe him was that he was a Great Orator. Not just a pretty good one, but a Great one, maybe even the Best Ever. This is something that was never said about Bush, about Obama's Republican opponents like McCain and Romney, nor even about his Democratic ones like Hillary Clinton and Biden (maybe to a lesser extent John Edwards was credited with some skill in this regard). This is not to say that all of these others suck at public speaking. They most certainly do not. And frankly, that's no surprise. People don't get to the level of a serious run at the White House without some skill in this arena, Jeb Bush notwithstanding.

But Obama, well he was and still is portrayed as a far above these other mere mortals. Witness this article from back in 2011, which purports to rank all the Presidents since 1933 on their oratory skills. It's author is Richard Greene, who has apparently instructed many powerful people on how to give great speech. Here are his rankings:
1. JFK
2. FDR
3. Obama
4. Reagan
5. Clinton
6. Lyndon Johnson
7. Richard Nixon
8. Dwight Eisenhower
9. Harry Truman
10. George H.W. Bush
11. Gerald Ford
12. Jimmy Carter
13. George W. Bush
He makes a point of drawing a line after the top five, labeling all that follow as "second tier," based on the idea that the top five were just really great. I'm betting that many other people "in the know" would offer similar rankings. Again, this point of view—that Obama is one of the greats—has been so common as to be almost a given for some time now. Indeed, many would happily accept ranking Obama even higher on this list. For his part, Greene also says this:
Barack Obama, at his best, in some ways is an even better orator than FDR or JFK and more accomplished than "The Great Communicator" Ronald Reagan, a trained actor and Bill Clinton, by far the greatest one-on-one communicator in politics, if not the history of mankind.
Wow. I mean it is sweet of Greene to not list Obama as number one outright, but the above shows how he really feels and reveals his partisan bent in all of this (as does the rest of the article, by the way). And I'm betting that now, four plus years later, Greene wouldn't hedge his bets. He'd simply put Obama at the top, based on speeches Obama has made since 2011.

Now I think it obvious that Obama can give a good speech (again, one doesn't get to this level without that skill). And I also think it obvious that he has given some great ones. But so have many other Presidents. Obama has also given some rather blah speeches. But more importantly, he has shown an inability to work effectively "off the cuff." Seriously, watch any non-scripted remarks from the President and count the number of "ums" and "ahs." He has a terrible habit in this regard. Then there's the rather petulant tone that has marked many of the President's speeches and press conferences. Some might say his petulance is understandable, but it's existence is a mark against him, when it comes to his oratory skills, any way you slice it.

Still, we're talking a high level of skill here, even if one agrees with my criticisms. But even if one doesn't, is Obama still better than Bill Clinton? Still better than Reagan? For that matter, are FDR and JFK actually better than Reagan and Clinton?

No, Obama is not better than Reagan, nor is he better than Clinton (I'll leave the FDR/JFK arguments alone). Seriously, it's not even close. Go back and look at some of the State of the Union addresses from Reagan and Clinton and compare them to Obama's. Even when the first two are saying nothing, they're doing it better than Obama by a country mile.

Again, this isn't meant to disparage Obama in the least, just to note that he is not in the same class as Reagan and Clinton. It shouldn't be that big a deal to say this, in my opinion. And yet it is. Allowing that Obama is not the greatest speaker of all time is somehow perceived as a slight or an insult by the cadres of Obama fanboys out there and by the President's sycophants in the media. From their point of view, he has to be one the greatest orators ever, just as he has to be one of the most intelligent Presidents ever.


In a word, race. As much as the President receives undue criticism because of his race (he really does), he also receives undo credit. There is this rather perverse need among many of Obama's supporters—particularly the white, upper class ones—for Obama to be special simply because he is a black American. It's not enough for him to be really smart and to be a really good speaker, he has to be the smartest and the best, period.

Really, this point of view, which in turns leads to a kind of attack dog mentality in defense of the President, is unfair to Obama as President and as a person in his own right. Moreover it's also somewhat racist, insofar as it is built around an unspoken assumption: that Obama needed to be the very best at these things in order to become President. He isn't and he didn't. He's a highly-skilled politician who used available tools to achieve the Oval Office, as was the case for most every President who came before him. But again, the fanboys don't want to hear it. Say to one of them something like "I don't think Obama is really that smart," and the retort will always be something like "He's a Harvard-trained constitutional scholar, what are you fuck-face?" Ditto for any criticisms of Obama's speaking abilities.

Again, this isn't meant to disparage the President. He's very smart. He's a very good speaker. He's just not the all-knowing genius many suppose him to be, and he's just not the greatest speaker to ever walk the face of the Earth. And he doesn't need to be.


  1. If you can't speak extemporaneously you're not a great speaker, end of story. Obama is terrible on the fly.

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