Obama's "Gift" May Have a Downside

Obama's "Gift" May Have a Downside

By Tom Bevan - June 12, 2009

Barack Obama is good at giving speeches. So good, in fact, he once referred to it as his "gift." More than any other factor, Obama's rhetorical skills are responsible for his rapid rise to the presidency, beginning with his blockbuster speech at the 2004 convention and continuing through a nearly two year primary and general election campaign. Obama's penchant for soaring oratory remains a political asset, but signs are emerging there may be a political downside to all of the President's speechifying.

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The first warning sign is that Obama is already pushing the limits of exposure. It seems Obama is everywhere and always speaking. It became apparent early on that the president's combination of charisma, eloquence, and popularity made it a political imperative that he become the Salesman in Chief. No other figure inside the administration had the star power and the persuasiveness to sell the transformational policy changes sought by this White House.

That said, in the first five months of his presidency Obama has held three prime time news conferences, twelve formal Q&A sessions and has delivered a number of high profile policy addresses (in addition to other exposure like interviews and appearances), each one amplified by extensive coverage by the media. The President's willingness to step inside America's living room at every possible opportunity may help cause the early onset of Obama fatigue.

Not only does Obama speak often, but his speeches also appear to be growing longer. And here we thought Joe Biden was the loquacious one. But Obama is proving the one to be incapable of brevity. The president's answers to questions at press conferences and in interviews can sometimes run upwards of five minutes of more. His remarks at daily public events can routinely run over 1,000 words. In the past month Obama has delivered 8 speeches running at least two thousand words each, including a nearly hour long address in Cairo last week and a mammoth 6,500 word discourse on national security on May 21.

Another issue is that Obama's oratory is starting to sound very formulaic. During the campaign, Obama excelled by repeating a well-honed stump speech about hope and change at hundreds of rallies across the country. Obama has adopted a similar approach as President, and the sheer volume of speeches he's given makes the pattern quite noticeable. In almost every speech, Obama bemoans the extremes on both the left and the right, predictably employing straw man arguments to discredit his opposition and position himself in the "reasonable" middle.

Lastly, Obama's speeches are often strikingly self referential. Clearly, Obama sees unique background and his life experiences as an asset and a rhetorical tool, which helps explain why his recent speech in Cairo was peppered with 68 first person references (I, me, my, or mine). But the habit carries over to other speeches as well, leaving the impression that Obama is often interested in talking about Obama.

In his speech honoring the 65th Anniversary of D-Day, for example, Obama made 10 first person references. While not a huge number in itself, it was eight more than Gordon Brown made and nine more than Stephen Harper made in their respective speeches that day. In his aforementioned national security speech on May 21, President Obama made an astounding 147 first person references.

Most important, however, Obama's high profile speechmaking on a range of big issues from restructuring GM to solving Middle East peace has dramatically increased the pressure on him to deliver results. As the Wall Street Journal put it on Monday, Obama is finding that "his own oratory laying out an ever-more-ambitious agenda, both in foreign and domestic policy, is ratcheting up demands for concrete achievements."

Obama's "gift" propelled him to the White House. He's now relying on it heavily to sell the American people on his vision of change. But at some point the public is going to get tired of hearing speeches from Obama, no matter how eloquent or well delivered. They will expect results. If Obama can't deliver those results, his "gift" will become a handicap in the form of a reputation as the president who talked the talk but couldn't walk the walk.

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Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email:, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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