Obama the Anti-Orator

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.

  • Craig

    What is your impression of Obama’s 2004 DNC speech?

    The idea that Obama rode to victory on his rhetorical abilities seems to have been pushed by his political opponents. Those on the right pushed the story that Obama’s rhetorical ability explained his popularity among the youthful, the uncritical, and the easily-persuaded. The story gave rise in turn to the mystery of why Obama didn’t exploit his supposed rhetorical powers during his presidency.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/joecarter Joe Carter

      ***What is your impression of Obama’s 2004 DNC speech?***
      I just watched it again to give it a fair assessment and try to hear it with fresh ears. It’s at best a decent speech. (He has to spend half the time praising John Kerry so Obama had a tough task.) But I think I know why it was overpraised: his voice.

      Obama has one of the best speaking voices of any politician alive. And the DNC convention was the first time many people heard him speak. I remember the first time I heard him my reaction was, “He sounds like pro-wrestler/actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson!” That’s an incredible voice.

      But we’ve been listening to that voice for four years and the thrill has worn off. Now his words have to carry him and his other speechmaking traits aren’t nearly as enthralling.

      ***The idea that Obama rode to victory on his rhetorical abilities seems to have been pushed by his political opponents.***

      Actually, I would say it was just the opposite. His allies were the ones that were pushing that idea—and pushing it so hard that his opponents conceded to it. It was only recently that Obama’s allies felt they could admit he wasn’t that good. In 2010, after Obama’s Nobel Prize speech, liberal pundit Kevin Drum wrote at Mother Jones: “There are two possible reasons for the speech being so unconvincing: either Obama doesn’t know how to deliver a good speech or else Obama isn’t really convinced himself. But we know the former isn’t true, don’t we?” Even in 2010 it wasn’t possible for them to even fathom that maybe Obama just wasn’t that good.

  • Shelia

    Well said! Or written, as the case is. Every time I read or hear that Obama is the greatest speaker ever, blah blah blah, I keep wondering if I’ve stumbled onto an alternate universe because I’m not hearing it. All those awkward pauses, the condescending tone, the back-and-forth teleprompter readings like he’s at a tennis match. It’s embarrassing to watch.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/joecarter Joe Carter

      It doesn’t help that Obama has gotten worse as an orator. In 2004 he had more ability and if he had honed it he might have become a good speaker. Today, though, he’s just sloppy.

      Obviously being POTUS is a tiring job so I can’t really blame him for not wanting to practice his speaking abilities. But I think part of it is that he thinks he is above having to put in the effort. His own hubris has been his downfall.