The power of oratory
Speechmaking has always been good for Barack Obama.
In 2004, as a 42-year-old state legislator, he vaulted to national stature with a brilliant speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
In 2007, he won the hearts of Iowa Democrats with a rip-roaring Jefferson-Jackson Day talk.
In 2008, after losing the New Hampshire primary, he rallied his flagging presidential campaign with one of the greatest concession statements ever made.
And he saved his candidacy later that spring with his Philadelphia address on race relations.
This is a man who knows the power of oratory. And it’s a good thing he does: We needed some.
The new president had three goals in his first address to both houses of Congress on Tuesday night.
He needed to spell out and defend his plan for stimulating the economy, which his administration has sometimes stumbled in explaining. He wanted to rally support for the rest of his ambitious domestic program, including expensive investments in healthcare, energy and education. And he sought to lift the mood of the nation by promising that better times lie ahead.
The least concrete of those goals, lifting the nation’s mood, was actually the most important -- because it will be difficult for Obama to implement any of his plans if Americans lose hope.
That’s why the first lines from the speech that the White House released in advance Tuesday were these: “While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”
The obvious comparison is to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who rallied Americans during the Great Depression with his fireside chats, broadcast on the still-new medium of radio.
“There is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people,” Roosevelt said in his first radio speech to the nation in 1933.
But FDR enjoyed a massive, obedient majority in Congress that passed his banking bill in a single day with a minimum of dissent. (As Will Rogers quipped at the time: “Congress doesn’t pass legislation anymore. They just wave at the bills as they go by.”)
With that kind of support, Roosevelt had an easier job, and could aim his speech mostly at persuading citizens to be patient and avoid the urge to withdraw their money from banks.
Obama, in contrast, is asking the public for help in putting pressure on his opponents in Congress.
That’s why the best analogy may not be to Roosevelt but to Ronald Reagan, who turned his presidency into a permanent campaign to rally public support to his side, even when Congress was skeptical.
On Thursday, Obama will deliver his first budget, and his proposals for healthcare, energy and education will require spending above and beyond the $787-billion stimulus bill. He said in his speech that he is likely to seek more funds to bail out the nation’s struggling banks.
“I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now,” Obama said. “I get it.” But, he added, “we cannot afford to govern out of anger. ... Our job is to solve the problem.”
In effect, Obama was appealing to his majority, the roughly 60% of voters who support him, to back him in his coming battles with Congress -- even when he asks for more money for the banks.
He’ll need the help. In the stimulus battle, Republicans once again cast themselves as the anti-spending party, and they show no sign of abandoning that stance. They have already served notice that they plan to fight Obama’s healthcare proposals just as they fought Bill Clinton’s in 1993.
As Reagan did before him, Obama understands the importance of dramatizing his message in a television-friendly way. He has taken his ideas on the road, visiting a highway construction site in Virginia, a Caterpillar factory in Illinois and a high school gymnasium in Arizona.
And in case there was anyone who still hadn’t gotten the point, he capped off his road show with a four-hour “fiscal summit” at the White House.
There was no “news” in Tuesday night’s speech; it was essentially an hourlong elaboration of the themes Obama introduced in his campaign and returned to in his inaugural address.
But consistency can be a virtue, especially during uncertain times. And as both candidate and president, Obama has delivered a clear and consistent message.
Any president whose speeches summon comparisons to Roosevelt and Reagan isn’t doing too badly.