Last week, Buzzfeed created a supercut of the 236 times that President Obama used his favorite verbal crutch during the first presidential debate.
“Obama spent more time speaking but not more time talking,” quipped James Poniewozik, TIME magazine’s TV critic. “You could have held a whole other debate within the time he spent on “Aaaahs” and “Ummms” and thoughtful pauses.” As horrible as his debate performance was, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the President when both his critics and allies are mocking his body language and verbal tics. Still, it provides a much needed corrective. And with 65 million people watching the president flop in such an important venue, many people are finally discovering what close observers have known for years: As an orator, Obama is a disappointment.
In 2008 I was writing a book on persuasion that uses Aristotle’s framework to analyze the rhetoric of Jesus. Throughout the book I used modern examples, including contemporary politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and was eager to add a recent model of exemplary ability. Several people suggested I include an example from candidate Obama since he was being praised as one of the premier orators of our time. Surprisingly, when I asked for specific instances of his rhetorical excellence no one could think of any. Out of the dozens of people that remarked on Obama’s ability as a speaker, not one was able to give me an actual example of his rhetorical genius.
After examining a number of his speeches for myself I discovered why: Despite the hype, Obama is a rather lackluster political rhetor. Indeed, if the primary purpose of political rhetoric is persuasion, then Obama’s oratorical ability is decidedly below average.
To see why he fails we can turn to Aristotle and the three essential components he identified for effective rhetoric: pathos, logos, and ethos.
Even his most ardent supporters recognize Obama’s limitations in the use of pathos ( persuading by the use of emotion). Unlike his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, Obama lacks the natural empathy to connect with an audience and has shown no sign of having the ability to verbally “fake it.” Also, despite his reputation for Spock-like logic, his muddled on-one-hand/on-the-other-hand, reach out to both sides approach tends to undercut his use of logos (persuading by the use of reasoning). Part of the blame lies with his speechwriters, but Obama has yet to deliver an address—whether off-the-cuff or with the aid of a teleprompter—that would convince the unconverted.
But it is ethos—the persuasive appeal of one’s character—that is responsible for both his inflated reputation as an orator and the disillusionment and disappointment many of his supporters are now having after hearing him speak more frequently. Unlike logos and pathos, ethos is a property of communication that belongs not to the speaker, but to the audience. The listener, rather than the rhetor, determines whether the speaker’s ethos is high or low. Before the election, when he was the embodiment of hope and change, Obama’s supporters imbued him with a high ethotic value. Now that he is president, and making unpopular decisions based on the realities of governing, many of these same fans are finding him less persuasive.
In many ways, conservatives have reason to be pleased by Obama’s lack of rhetorical ability. Those of us who oppose much of his domestic agenda are relieved that he wasn’t able to go on a speaking tour and convince large segments of the skeptical populace to support his policies. But in some ways, his failure to persuade has been detrimental to the aspirations and objectives of the nation. As the elected political leader of the United States—and the unofficial spokesman for the West—the President holds the most powerful bully pulpit in the world. Yet in almost four years in office Obama has never given a convincing speech on the world stage. It is difficult to even identify a memorable line, much less a passage that will resonate through the ages.
Obama rose to the highest office in the land by combining a mellifluous voice, a modicum of natural charisma, and a meager rhetorical ability. With this paucity of gifts he gained one of the most undeserved reputations as a speaker in modern history. How ironic then that the biggest threat to his reelection has not been Mitt Romney, but the public’s realization that Obama is a less persuasive orator than George W. Bush.