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The Politics of Speech: Why Obama Should Be Quiet(er)

January 28th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The Front Porchers sounded an odd note today in Susan McWilliams’ argument that Barack Obama’s failures to govern indicate that he should talk more, not less, to the American people.

I say ‘odd’ because by any objective standard, Obama talked an enormous amount his first year, so much so that some would accuse him of doing little else (note:  52 speeches on health care alone, and how did that work out for him?).

McWilliams contends, naturally enough, that speech is a form of political action.  “Speech can inspire people. Speech can persuade people. Speech can connect people. Speech can move people, or call us to our better selves. Speech can teach people.”

Yes, it can.  But use the same words too often, and they lose their force (see: the above paragraph).  Words are effective when used sparingly, and if Obama wanted to remain a powerful communicator, he would have been better served by talking significantly less than he has.  The media’s obligation to cover the President when he talks inevitably minimizes the effects of his words.  After all, as a candidate he had competition for the nation’s attention, which minimized his exposure (especially when Palin came along) and preserved the effectiveness of his rhetoric.

If speech is a form of political action, then, it is a limited form.  Without other political tools or competition for an audience, it quickly becomes vacuous, a threat that the Obama team seemed to understand (hence the ‘experts’) but apparently had no idea how to avoid.  In such a scenario, people inevitably quit listening.

One other point about McWilliams’ essay.  She writes, “One of the enduring truths of political life is that people never want to be governed by a policy alone. They want to be governed by other people, by another person: a person who works hard to understand others and to make himself understood. Speech is key to those efforts.”

However true that may be on an individual level, it is more difficult to attain on a public platform like the Presidency’s.  Obama’s team clearly privileges newscasts over the audience in the room, with good reason given the size of the respective audiences.  But this renders the speaker’s communication to embodied humans superfluous, which makes political speeches nothing other than theater-done-badly and inevitably gives off the ‘distant’ impression that overly media-sensitive politicians suffer with (I’m looking at you, Romney).

But who can blame them?  Get the media wrong, and apparently your national political aspirations will end (that would be you, Jindal).   Hence Obama’s dependence upon the teleprompter, a habit which has justly earned him scorn from even his friends.

Whatever Obama’s problems are, then, the solution is hardly more talking.  His team tried that strategy in 2009, and it was found wanting.  Why it will work in 2010 is a mystery still in need of explaining.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.