President Obama and the Proper Economy of Persuasion

Barack Obama gave many speeches in the 2008 campaign which were -- with a single large exception -- versions of one speech. In office, he has addressed Americans chiefly in two formats: the grand policy exordium, as in the Cairo speech on the Middle East in June 2009 or the health care speech to Congress in September 2009; and the town-hall Q-and-A, where he serves as an agreeable host to comfort the anxieties of citizens. He has yet to develop a consistent clarity in the explanation of his policies: an ability that is tested in open debate and unrehearsed exchanges more than in the formats of the prepared speech and the polite interview.

As president, Obama was helped to forge a style but also hindered by the examples of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. From Reagan, he gets a tendency to lean on platitudes and homely certainties, putting broad assertions of good will and sentimental common sense in the place of logical and historical demonstration. Yet Obama lacks the simplicity of mind required to carry conviction through repetitions of a simple theme. From Clinton, he has adapted for less formal occasions a relaxed and rambling manner. "This-is-what-we're doin', and here's where we need your help." Yet he speaks deliberately. His display of a painstaking pause at every phrase yields a first impression of great precision, which disappoints on a closer look. His choice of words is long-winded and he is apt to throw in personal reflections almost anywhere. All these habits lead away from the proper economy of persuasion.

The extracts from his September 10 press conference printed below under the headings Question and President Obama are drawn verbatim from the transcript. In the final extract, answering a question about Muslims in America, he delivers a plain truth from plain ground without a trace of self-regard, pampered vagueness, or overemphasis. This is his standard, set by himself. The revised versions of the other extracts serve to explain details, acknowledge inconvenient facts, and name things directly, in preference to the forms of circumlocution and euphemism to which this president is attached beyond any advantage they can ever confer.

QUESTION 1: A centerpiece [of your policy on financial regulatory reform] was a consumer financial protection bureau; and yet, you haven't named a head. Is Elizabeth Warren still a leading candidate?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Now, the idea for this agency was Elizabeth Warren's. She's a dear friend of mine; she's somebody I've known since I was in law school. And, you know, I have been in conversations with her. She is a tremendous advocate for this idea. It's only been a couple of months, and this is a big task standing up this entire agency. So I'll have an announcement soon about how we're going to move forward. And, you know, I--I think what's fair to say is--is that I have had conversations with Elizabeth over the course of these--over these last couple of months, but I'm not going to make an official announcement until--until it's ready.

ANALYSIS: Too much information.

SHORT VERSION: I've talked extensively with Elizabeth Warren, whose competence I appreciate and whose dedication I admire. We'll make the nomination when we're ready.

QUESTION 2: How have you changed Washington?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I'll tell you how we've changed Washington. Prior to us getting here, as I indicated before, you had a set of policies that were skewed towards special interests, skewed towards the most powerful, and ordinary families out there were being left behind.

And since we've gotten here, whether it's making sure that folks who can't get health insurance because of a pre-existing condition can now get health insurance or children who didn't have coverage now have coverage, whether it's making sure that credit card companies have to actually post in understandable ways what your credit card rates are and they can't jack up existing balances in arbitrary ways, whether it's making sure that we've got clean water and clean air for future generations, whether it's making sure that tax cuts go to families that need it as opposed to folks who don't, on a whole range of issues, over the last 18 months, we've put in place policies that are going to help grow a middle class and lay the foundation for long-term economic growth.

Now if -- if you're asking why haven't I been able to create a greater spirit of cooperation in Washington, yeah, I think that's fair. I'm as frustrated as anybody by it. I think part of it has to do with the fact that when we came into office, we came in under very tough economic circumstances, and I think that some of the Republican leaders made a decision -- you know, we're going to sit on the sidelines and let the Democrats try to solve it -- and so we got a lot of resistance very early.

I think what's also true is -- is that when you take on tough issues like health care or financial regulatory reform, where special interests are deeply entrenched, there's a lot of money at stake for them. And where the issues are so complicated that it drags on for a long time, you end up having a lot of big fights here in town, and it's messy, and it's frustrating.

ANALYSIS: The question invites a sermon or a joke. The response is a short sermon, taking a small amount of the relevant blame. Better to say who obstructed the change, and why.

SHORT VERSION: Historically the Democratic Party has worked to spread the benefits of our society. The Republicans have wanted to confine the benefits to a smaller number. They favor a few, and argue that this helps everyone in the long run. Their theories have had a fair trial since 1980, and they've been proved false--catastrophic, some would say. But even in view of that history, I've been amazed at the strategy of the Republican leadership these last two years. All presidents expect opposition. What took me by surprise was the ferocity of the party discipline on the other side, getting all its members into lockstep, blotting out the least glimmer of independence, saying no to everything, sight unseen. So, yes, it has been a struggle, and the struggle goes on.

QUESTION 3: If these [Israel-Palestine] talks fail at an early stage, will this administration disengage?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: There are enormous hurdles between now and --and our end point. And there are going to be a whole bunch of folks in the region who want to undermine these negotiations. We saw it when Hamas carried out these horrific attacks against civilians and explicitly said, "We're going to try to do this to undermine peace talks." There are going to be rejectionists who suggest that it can't happen, and there are also going to be cynics who just believe that the mistrust between the sides is too deep.

We understood all that. We understood that it was a risk for us to promote these discussions. But it is a risk worth taking, because I firmly believe that, you know, it is in America's national-security interests, as well as Israel's national-security interests as well as in the interests of the Palestinian people, to arrive at a peace deal.

Part of the reason that I think Prime Minister Netanyahu was comfortable coming here was that he's seen during the course of 18 months that my administration is unequivocal in our defense of Israel's security.

And we've engaged in some unprecedented cooperation with Israel to make sure that they can deal with any external threats. But I think he also came here understanding that, to maintain Israel as a Jewish state that is also a democratic state, this issue has to be dealt with.

I think President Abbas came here despite grave misgivings and pressure from the other side because he understood the window for creating a Palestinian state is closing. And there are a whole bunch of parties in the region who purport to be friends of the Palestinians, and yet do everything they can to avoid the path that would actually lead to a Palestinian state -- would actually lead to their goal.

And so the two parties need each other. That doesn't mean it's going to work; ultimately, it's going to be up to them. We can facilitate, we can encourage, we can tell them that we will stand behind them in their efforts and are wiling to contribute as part of the broader international community in making this work. But ultimately, the parties have to make these decisions for themselves. And I remain hopeful, but -- but this is going to be tough. And I -- I don't want anybody out there thinking that it's going to be easy.

The main point I want to make is, it's a risk worth taking because the alternative is a status quo that is unsustainable. And so if these talks break down, we're going to keep on trying. Over the long term, it has the opportunity, by the way, also, to change the strategic landscape in the Middle East in a way that would be very helpful. It would help us deal with an Iran that has not been willing to give up its nuclear program.

It would help us deal with terrorist organizations in the region.

So -- so this something in our interests. You know, we're not just doing this to feel good; we're doing it because it'll help secure America as well.

ANALYSIS: Delete foggy generalities: "a whole bunch of folks in the region," "a whole bunch of parties in the region." Specify. Who and what? And economize. No bureaucratic lyricism ("the strategic landscape in the Middle East"), no adverbial filler ("in a way that would be very helpful"). Don't answer straw-man accusations ("we're not just doing this to feel good"). Don't answer for everyone's feelings. Speak about actions not intentions.

SHORT VERSION: Nobody expected us to give another try to these negotiations, but they have enormous importance for the security of the region, and for American security as well. President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu come to the table with a complex history; that's well known. But Israelis and Palestinians both have an interest in peace. Israel today and the Palestinian Authority have both said they're looking to establish two states living side by side at peace. Al-Qaeda would be greatly weakened by such an agreement, and by the creation of a Palestinian state. We know for a fact that it would deny Al-Qaeda one of their greatest tools for the recruitment of terrorists: namely (as they see it) the occupation of the West Bank and the oppression of Palestinians. It will be a great advance if we can cut off the poison of actual conditions that along with religious fanaticism are a great feeder of terrorism.

QUESTION 4: How can you lecture Hamid Karzai about corruption when so many of these corrupt people are on the U.S. payroll?

When it comes to corruption, I'll just give you an example. Four years ago, 11 judges in the Afghan legal system were indicted for corruption. This year, 86 were indicted for corruption. We have seen Afghan-led efforts that have gone after police commanders, significant businesspeople in Afghanistan. But we're a long way from where we need to be on that.

And every time I talk to President Karzai, I say that, as important as it is for us to help you train your military and your police forces, the only way that you are going to have a stable government over the long term is if the Afghan people feel that you're looking out for them. And that means making sure that the tradition of corruption in the government is reduced. And we're going to keep on putting pressure on him on that front.

Is it going to happen overnight? Probably not. Are there going to be occasions where we look and see that some of our folks on the ground have made compromises with people who are known to have engaged in corruption? You know, we're reviewing all that constantly, and there may be occasions where that happens. And I think you're certainly right, Helene, that we've got to make sure that we're not sending a mixed message here.

So one of the things that I've said to my national security team is, let's be consistent in terms of how we operate across agencies.

Let's make sure that our efforts there are not seen as somehow giving a wink and a nod to corruption. If we are saying publicly that that's important, then our actions have to match up across the board. And--but it is a challenging environment in which to do that.

ANALYSIS: The specification is honest but the cited figure points to a discouraging fact. Admit this. The president should not quote his admonishment of his own subordinates; it suggests that without him, they would be lost. "Some of our folks on the ground have made compromises with people who are known to have engaged in corruption": that is the heart of the matter--say it fast and straight.

SHORT VERSION: Let me offer a comparison that gives some cause for hope. Four years ago, 11 judges in the Afghan legal system were indicted for corruption. This year, 86 were indicted for corruption. Now, that may suggest how widespread the corruption is. It also shows our oversight has become more rigorous. There has been progress in the fight to root out corruption. It's a hard fight; as hard, in some ways, as the war itself. Some Americans there, as you suggest, have been involved in bribery, embezzlement, and illegal payoffs. When we find the people who commit those crimes, whoever they are, we're going after them.

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S ANSWER TO THE QUESTION ON MUSLIMS IN AMERICA: They are Americans. And we honor their service. And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don't differentiate between "them" and "us." It's just "us."