Looking to the horizon

Has Barack Obama lost his oratorical touch? Is he beginning to be tuned out because we see so much of him?

Speechmaking as a president presents bigger challenges than it does as a campaigner. The audiences and the desired goals are quite different. It’s much more difficult as president to explain complicated policies day in and day out – including the what and why. And now he needs to reach and convince different stakeholders, like members of Congress, not just the voters responding to broad policy themes.

In the good old days, presidential speeches were rarer, reserved more for bold strategic shifts. But in our 24/7 media world, we often hear from the president several times a day. Truman spoke 88 times in a typical year; Clinton 550 times. So, for President Obama, who may give four or five speeches a day, it’s unlikely that any one speech will rise above the clutter.

No doubt, he still has the oratorical gifts to move people and alter the political landscape. One recent example was his address to Congress on health care – which some considered the best policy speech since Lyndon Johnson talked about the Voting Rights Act in 1965 – containing all the intelligence and uplifting, bridge-building rhetoric that were on full display during the campaign.

But given the risk of overexposure, since he’s addressing so many complicated and controversial problems at once, I contend the president needs to use his gifts to talk more about the future with a vision of better days. That means connecting the discreet policies he’s working on into a single, long-term narrative. Roosevelt called it “The New Deal” when he was elected in the midst of the great Depression. And it reduced fears and anger by giving people a glimmer of hope and a glimpse at brighter future.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently, “…it would would be nice if Americans would once again start looking to the horizon.”

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