Tuesday, February 2, 2010

In advance of my reaction to the State of the Union address

I missed the State of the Union address; I was out running important family errands. But a very good (and very liberal) friend wanted my opinion of it. So I'm going to go read it and then come back with my opinion. But here are some things I said about it (with some personal stuff excised) in response to my friend's question, "Would you agree that Barack is an excellent writer and communicator, even if you aren’t impressed with his style [of delivery]?" This will serve as the background to what is likely to be an unfriendly fisking in a later post -- since expectations tend to form our reactions as much as objective reality does, this will let you know where I was coming from before B.O. even opened his mouth.


Would you agree that he is an excellent writer and communicator, even if you aren’t impressed with his style?

You know, that’s an interesting question, and I think I’ll want to think about the answer a bit...I’ll probably think out loud, so to speak. Also I think I’ll answer BEFORE reading the SOTU speech, and then read the speech to see whether it changes my opinion... (I won’t get much into the question of how much Obama has to do with the writing of his speeches; I think he probably plays a significant role in their composition, but my reason for thinking so is, alas, precisely the bad parts that I don’t think a professional speechwriter would put in there. But at the very least he approves them before he delivers them, which is good enough to go on.)

Back during the campaign I thought the Obama speeches themselves (as distinct from his delivery) were overrated, but that’s mostly because his worshippers thought he was the second coming of Demosthenes and Cicero and Abraham Lincoln all rolled into one -- nobody could have lived up to the absurd billing he was getting. All the same there were certain aspects of them that I thought were quite skillfully done. In particular, he had to navigate the rhetorical space between the rabidly Bush-hating part of his base who wanted red rhetorical meat, and the centrist independents who inhabit the Scott Brown kind of space and highly value bipartisanship and working together. That’s a really tough line to walk and I thought his rhetorical solution was perfect, skillful, and not at all obvious to the non-professional. [The rhetorical solution in question is described at some length here.]

The fascinating thing is that as a President, after running what was widely considered a triumph of a campaign, he has been one of the most dramatic failures as an orator and communicator that we’ve ever seen – for the last six months, every time he has given a speech in defense of his policies, the response in the polls has been a drop in support for the policy he has just defended. His political enemies have been thrilled to hear “President Obama is going to give another speech” – for example, there was much rejoicing and exultation on the red-state sites when it was announced that Obama was going to fly to Boston to campaign for Martha Coakley, which exultation ran along the lines of, “Now we KNOW Brown’s gonna win.” How did that happen? How did the Man With The Golden Tongue become The Guy We Want Campaigning For Our Opponent? And if you ask the President’s own people why it is that health care failed, their explanation is that the President didn’t do a good enough job selling it to the American people – that is, they believe that his failure is a rhetorical failure rather than a policy failure; “What we have here,” the President’s own people are saying, “is a failure to communicate.” Now, I think they’re actually wrong about that; I think they are underrating the quality of his speeches now, just as I thought his campaign speeches were overrated back in the day – I think his problem is mostly with what he’s trying to sell, not with how he’s selling it. Still, it’s fascinating is that the President’s own team thinks it’s the talking part that he’s screwing up. Just a very, very odd turn of events.

I guess I see Obama as being in a very difficult position. The big rhetorical problem for Obama, I think, is that his strength has always been finding words and phrases that have lots of positive connotations but very little concrete denotation, and using those words to appeal to the audience’s generally good intentions (most of us would say, in all seriousness, that we want “the best for our country” and that we want to return our country to “the principles that made America great”) without getting stuck on the audience’s disagreements about how those good intentions should be applied concretely (the specific details of what Kenny Pierce and my ex-mother-in-law think is “the best for our country” and what are “the principles that made America great” are, I think, usually pretty deeply opposed). The Obama style of rhetoric does very well at building the appearance of consensus, which is the goal of a campaign; and thus he was an extraordinarily successful campaigner. But his task as President is actually to build a genuine consensus, by changing people’s minds about what specific policies should result from all of our good intentions, until he’s managed to convince at least 50% or so of the American people that This Particular Set Of Proposals Is A Good Idea. And so far he has turned out to be very, very bad at that – the people who agree with him continue to agree with him and don’t see anything wrong with his speeches, but he doesn’t seem to know how to change the minds of people who disagree with him, and – far more disastrously – the more he talks at the undecided, the more he convinces them to join the other side. So if you look at his general approval rating, it isn’t the average of his policies’ individual approval ratings – every single one of his actual proposed policies polls ten to twenty points lower than Obama himself polls, and after a year during which he has spent an immense amount of time speaking directly to the American People in defense of his beloved health care reform, 69% of the public says it’s time to throw the whole damn thing out and either start over or else just give up entirely. Meanwhile the more he makes clear what specific programs he wants, the more he undermines the illusion he created during the campaign that “Obama Agrees With Me,” since he had lots of people who believed mutually exclusive things each imagining that “he agrees with me” thanks to the low denotation/connotation ratio of his campaign vocabulary – and a person who thinks you’ve betrayed him is much more ill-disposed toward you than is a person who all along knew you disagreed with him. And thus not only do his individual proposals poll very much worse than he does generally, but his own approval rating has set records for the speed with which it has collapsed since his inauguration.

So I personally think he pretty badly needs to fire the guys who wrote his campaign speeches, and to hire people who can help him write Presidential speeches – the two are actually quite different genres, and nobody has seemed to be able to explain the difference to him. Perhaps nobody on his team even realizes there is a difference.

I don’t know if what I’m trying to say makes sense, alas...

Anyway, I guess if I were going to give Obama’s speechwriters advice before the State of the Union, it would be the following, in no particular order:

  1. Most important thing of all: after you give this speech, don’t give another one for at least two weeks. Jesus Christ Himself couldn’t spend as much time on air as you have this year without turning into a self-parody. Your rhetoric sounds much more formulaic and clichéd and tired than it really is, just because you use it so much more than any previous President has. You’re not giving yourself a fair chance. A lot of what seems trite and boring and pedestrian with your speechwriting isn’t really a problem with the phrasing or the writing – it’s the repetition that’s damaging you. Less is more, Mr. President. Less is more. Less is more. Less is more. Less is…see what I mean?

  2. Figure out which one of your speechwriters it is that keeps sticking into your speeches the phrases, “Let me be clear,” and “Some would say,” and fire his ass. There’s no worse sin in a speechwriter than to use a verbal crutch to the point that anybody who wants to get a cheap laugh at your expense can simply assume a mock-serious attitude and quote your crutch-phrase – whoever that guy on your speechwriting team is, he’s both lazy and incompetent. (And if, as I suspect, he’s you yourself…look, there’s a reason Presidents hire professional speechwriters. Start taking their advice.) You use those two clichés (especially the first) in every speech you give and usually several times. That would be bad enough – but you give speeches practically every day; so the last thing you can afford to do is get lazy with the phrasing. You’ve completely ruined those two phrases for yourself. Don’t ever use them again. I meant that quite literally: at this point, you should be almost more willing to drop an f-bomb in the SOTU speech than to allow yourself to utter the words, “Let me be clear.” Half the Republicans in the country will be playing a drinking game that involves the phrase “Let me be clear.” Leave ‘em thirsty.

  3. Hire somebody whose only job is to wait until you and your speechwriters think the speech is ready to be delivered, to then count the number of times you use the words “I,” “me,” “myself,” “my,” and “mine,” and finally to make you cut out at least 50% of them. No President has ever spent a higher percentage of his speechification time on “me, myself and I” than you have. Then on top of that, no President has ever talked as much as you have, period. This means that in your first year you have made the American public listen to you talk about yourself more than they’ve ever heard any other President talk about himself in any entire administration of the past two centuries. Your enemies are, with great success, painting you as a flaming narcissist. Maybe it’s fair, maybe it isn’t, but if you keep talking incessantly about yourself every time you open your mouth in public, you’re playing straight into their hands. Let other people worship you if they insist; but don’t make it look like you’re worshipping yourself. Don’t mention yourself at all in this speech. I mean it. There’s a reason the speech is called the “State of the Union,” not the “State of the President:” it ain’t about you. Don’t use the first person singular. At all..except for one exception, which I’ll get to in just a minute.

  4. If you mention Dubya at all in your speech tonight, make it be in a compliment. You can’t keep saying, “All our problems are George Bush’s fault” in one breath and “We have to move beyond this partisan bickering and finger-pointing” in the next; it simply makes you look like a shameless hypocrite. I know you feel the need to play to your base, but just remember: when you alienate a member of the Far Left, you lose his vote, but your opponents don’t gain it – he just doesn’t vote at all, putting you down one. Piss off the independents, and not only do you NOT get their votes – your opponents DO, putting you down two…and the next thing you know, there’s a Republican sitting in Teddy Kennedy’s seat. Find something reasonably innocuous and praise the man for it; otherwise, don’t mention him at all.

  5. You have to convince the center – which you have lost, and lost in a big way, over the last year – that you have heard and accepted their rebuke, and that you are (as Bill Clinton did in his day, and for which he was duly rewarded with a second term) changing your deeds as well as your tune. Since you can’t change your deeds overnight, it is critically important to change your tune. Remember “we are the change we have been waiting for”? You’d better have a signature line to deliver tonight that sticks in the memory the way that one did, and that communicates that YOU will be a different President in Years Two Through Four than you were in Year One. Your original line has been ruined, because the “change” independents wanted was a change in the way Washington does business, and they think you’ve been just more of the same for the last year. Your campaign fuel was the idea that the nation needed to change. What you have to communicate tonight, to the independents who have almost entirely deserted you, is that you recognize that change is needed – in you. Find a phrase that will capture that in five to ten words, polish the phrasing until it dazzles like diamond, and make your entire speech build up to the moment at which you deliver that particular line. “Next year will be different, because I will be different,” is what you want to communicate (don’t use that phrase, of course; it’s lame -- but then I’m not going to deliver it in front of an in-large-part-distrustful nation). For God’s sake don’t try to go down the path of, “Next year needs to be different; so my opponents need to change their evil ways.” Even if that’s what you believe, it can’t be what you communicate tonight.

  6. In what’s actually a continuation of the previous point, there is one attitude above all that you need to project tonight, and that is humility. Find something to apologize for – in a year in which your approval ratings have plunged farther and faster than any prior President’s, you can surely find at least one thing to apologize for – and say, “I did this wrong, and it changes starting tonight.” Practically every person in America, I suspect, expects you to say at least five times in your speech that the Republicans in general, and George Bush in particular, have done things wrong; nobody expects you to say, “You know what? I’ve been a complete jackass, and I apologize.” Surprise the nation by picking an executive policy that you can reverse by fiat, and by saying, “I was wrong” – in exactly those words – and announcing a change in the policy. For example, I think something like 55% of recently polled Americans wanted the UndieBomber to be waterboarded (! yeah, I know, I was surprised my own self), and the recent testimony in Congress has made it clear that your team’s handling of that situation was a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants cluster rather than the result of any coherent and well-thought-out-beforehand set of policies and procedures. So announce in your speech tonight that you believe your team made the wrong decision and that it’s your fault; announce that you are ordering Undieman to be reclassified immediately as an enemy combatant and to be removed from the criminal justice system, and announce that you are ordering him to be interrogated by military intelligence “in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.” Furthermore, say that in the future the policy will be that in any situation that appears to involve the possibility of Islamic terrorism, your standing instructions are, effective immediately, that the potential terrorist will be treated as an enemy combatant, in compliance with the Geneva Conventions, until an explicit high-level decision has been made to the contrary. Say the words, “I was wrong” explicitly; leave the further statement “but at least I wasn’t an evil torturing bastard like George Bush” implicit in your reference to the Geneva Conventions… -- Look, it doesn’t have to be this particular issue, you understand. What is important isn’t the specific policy; what is important is that you surprise both your enemies and your friends by apologizing for behaving badly yourself, rather than by accusing Republicans of behaving badly. There are times for projecting confidence; times for projecting authority; times for projecting righteous anger…but this, tonight, for you, is a time for projecting humility. Make sure humility gets projected. Above all, don’t come off as thinking that the bad year you’ve had is other people’s fault. Even if it really has been.

  7. Use the following word repeatedly and prominently tonight: “liberty.” Find somebody to teach you how to pronounce it properly. As far as I know you have never used it in public. This isn’t snark; I mean it quite literally: I don’t remember ever hearing you use that word. But for a very significant percentage of the American people, this word is at the core of what constitutes “American values.” In particular, the Tea Party movement, which at the present time polls higher in self-identification than either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, considers “liberty” to be the highest of political values. Traditionally in America, of course, “liberty” has meant “the right to tell the government to go to hell,” and the opposite of “liberty” has been “tyranny,” in the sense of, “government that thinks it can tell you what to do.” Remember Reagan’s explanation of the difference between the American and Soviet constitutions (and if you don’t know how he defined it, go look it up, because in the Tea Party movement you’re dealing with a whole bunch of people who have exactly that take on the proper relationship between government and The People.) Now this is a problem for you because every major political initiative you’ve championed in your first year has had the clear effect of greatly increasing the scope, cost, and general omnipresence of the federal government, in ways that would remind somebody reading the Declaration of Independence far more of King George than of George Washington. I assume that you do not actually want to suddenly start governing as a small-government libertarian; so you’d better get to work co-opting and redefining the word “liberty,” because right now that word’s killing you in the polls. Find some way, in this speech, to promote yourself as a champion of liberty, and use the damned word. You’re an American President. Talk like one.

  8. Lower your chin.

  9. Let me repeat that: lower your damned chin. For God’s sake stop literally looking down your nose at the American people as if you were posing for Mount Rushmore. Humility, remember: you are the servant of the People, not their job interviewer or after-school-detention monitor or The Rich Man Whose Daughter They Want To Date, and they are at present displeased with your performance so far. Get the arrogance out of your body language.

  10. However, while you should be humble, you should also not cringe, either physically or verbally. You should communicate that you are capable of learning from your mistakes, and that you have every expectation of delivering a dramatically better performance in your second year, thanks to the sound advice and firm but well-meant rebuke you have received from the American People. We’re a forgiving nation, and the majority of us still want to like you. Don’t do your “serious, impressive, smartest-guy-in-the-room” shtick you’ve been using for, like, ever – surprise us with an humble but firmly optimistic resolve to make changes in yourself and to do a better job going forward.

  11. Now, let’s talk about your favorite rhetorical tactic: using vague terms to create a rhetorical space which each individual listener can fill in his own substance, by which he effectively creates you in his own image, thus allowing you to be all things to most people. It was brilliant to speak throughout your campaign always of “hope” and “change” while carefully avoiding specifics that could be pinned on you in debate (not “we need to change policy x to policy y,” but instead “we are the change we have been waiting for” = “I create on your behalf those very changes that you, Mr. Pierce, want to see”); and I particularly liked (as a rhetorician, though not as an ethicist) your campaign trick of switching back and forth within the confines of a single speech between very sharply drawn, individualistic portraits of people whom you wanted the voters to pity, and very vaguely drawn, largely impersonalized “forces” of evil whom you wanted the voters to hate and despise, leaving yourself room to close the very speeches in which you fanned the flames of your base’s resentment of the Wealthy Republican Bad Guys with a call for an end to partisanship and mutual sniping. This was rhetorically brilliant. What I don’t think you realize, alas, is that it’s a game with a limited shelf life, and that shelf life has expired. You can’t go into this speech thinking you can appeal to your favorite traditional (but carefully undefined) American buzzwords that you have spent the last year using, because you have now unwittingly filled in lots of your own substance – when you use them now, people are going to fill in not the policies they themselves want (which is what they did during your campaign), but instead the policies you have spent the last year trying to rush through. For example, if you speak of “the American vision,” people will no longer fill in the blank (for “vision,” in political oratory, is merely a rhetorical “________” disguised as a noble aspiration) with their vision of what government ought to be – they’ll now fill in that blank with what they now perceive to be your vision of what government ought to be, which perception they derive from the policies you’ve spent the last year pushing. And this is a huge problem because most Americans are pretty adamantly opposed to those policies. The very same words and phrases that drew cheers from independents in January of 2009, will evoke fear and resentment and anger in those same independents in January of 2010. Remember my telling you that you need to use the word “liberty” several times in this speech? That’s a specific example; now I’m telling you to generalize the principle. You have to completely reset your rhetoric. Do it tonight.

OK, I'll go read the speech now.

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