The standard complaint about President Obama — that he’s better at giving speeches than running the government — was a cliche even before the opening of 2013, his worst year in the White House. After the epic incompetence of the healthcare rollout, even his friends are hard-pressed to deny the charge. Still, if you ask me, the main thing about Obama is not that he gives too many speeches but that he gives too few.
Obama’s best and most memorable speeches have all been in the cause of getting elected. In selling himself, he’s often been superb — partly (and rightly) by identifying that purpose with bigger issues, notably America’s longing to transcend race. He moved people, including many not strongly committed to his view of activist government, and commanded their admiration. I was one of them. In so doing, he wasn’t faking or pretending to be something he wasn’t, as the standard charge implies. He was laying the groundwork for what could have been a great presidency.
When it came to selling policies, as opposed to selling himself, Obama was much less effective. And here’s the puzzle: For the most part, it wasn’t because his efforts fell flat; it was because he didn’t really try.
Healthcare reform is the most telling example. Yes, Obama has given countless speeches endorsing the idea in the most general terms — advocating universal affordable access, for instance, and pointing out that the United States is unique among advanced nations in failing to provide it. He’s made that point along with other more questionable claims (the reform will lower costs, improve quality, reduce the budget deficit and so forth) at election-style rallies in front of crowds of cheering supporters. He preached to the converted. But aside from promising that people who liked their insurance could keep it (which wasn’t true), he did very little to market the policy to skeptical voters, of whom there were many from the outset, and certainly never as carefully or creatively as he had marketed himself.
The reform was a momentous undertaking. Yet those speeches made no real effort to describe the policy, defend it against plausible alternatives, prepare people for setbacks or answer the criticisms — including intelligent criticisms — that were being made of it. Obama said more about the individual mandate when he thought it was a bad idea, while campaigning against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, than after he’d decided it was an essential part of the reform.
The rhetorical strategy was to avoid the substance and associate the policy with the phenomenon that was Obama: to say, in effect, “You voted for me and elections have consequences. I’m backing this policy, whatever it is. What more is there to discuss?”
In a divided country, getting elected isn’t enough — not if you have big policy ambitions. Obama, we are given to understand, cares about immigration, climate change, criminal-justice reform, economic opportunity, gun control and other big, important subjects. They all get shout-outs from the presidential podium — but has he seriously engaged his opponents on any of them? If so, I missed it.
You’d be forgiven for wondering if he simply finds policy less interesting than politics. In this, of course, he wouldn’t be alone. Professional Washingtonians care far more about the contest — about winners and losers — than about the purpose of the contest. At the news conference he gave just before Christmas, Obama seemed downright bored. Perhaps he feels that, as a two-term president with no more elections to win, his work is done. With three years of his second term to go, that would be a shame.
If he feels a certain lassitude, he doesn’t lack for excuses. The president’s power to make domestic policy is limited to begin with, and a morbidly obstructive Congress can make serious discussion of policy seem quite beside the point. Actually, though, it isn’t. An extreme and self-emasculating opposition gives Obama an opportunity to address the public as the voice of reason and moderation, and win hearts and minds. That’s not just how you win elections. It’s also how you get your way on policy.
Don’t misunderstand me. Executive ability is wanted in a president — either that or the wit to appoint and empower competent surrogates. The healthcare fiasco suggests Obama lacks both. But don’t disdain the ability to inspire voters to support a worthy cause. Great political leaders are usually great speakers (or at least highly effective ones), and Obama has shown he has the knack. It’s such a valuable asset. Yet he’s let it go to waste.
Three years is a long time, and it isn’t too late. To be sure, he'll need to get the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act working tolerably well first: If that continues to unravel, Obama will lose all credibility and will be deemed no longer worth listening to. If healthcare reform can be turned around, he should engage on policy with the electorate’s intelligent skeptics. To rescue his presidency, Obama needs to start selling his ideas with the same commitment he brought to selling himself.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.
© 2013, Bloomberg News