If Only the President Would Make Speeches, Everything Would Be Different

Yesterday, psychologist and political consultant Drew Westen had yet another op-ed in a major newspaper (the Washington Post this time) explaining that all of Barack Obama's troubles come from a failure to use rhetoric effectively. Don't get me wrong, I think rhetoric is important—in fact, I've spent much of the last ten years or so writing about it. But Westen once again seems to have fallen prey to the temptation of believing that everything would be different if only a politician would give the speech he's been waiting to hear. There are two problems with this belief, the first of which is that a dramatic speech almost never has a significant impact on public opinion. The second is that Barack Obama did in fact do exactly what Drew Westen and many other people say they wish he had done.

This is only one part of Westen's piece, but I want to focus on it because it's said so often, and is so absurd

In keeping with the most baffling habit of one of our most rhetorically gifted presidents, Obama and his team just didn't bother explaining what they were doing and why. To them, their actions were self-evident. But nothing is self-evident when your opponents are spending millions of dollars to defeat you. Instead, the White House blundered around with memorable phrases such as "bending the cost curve," which didn't speak to the values underlying the need for health-care reform.

My God, do people ever have short memories. They "didn't bother explaining what they were doing and why"? Oh sure, if only Obama had, say, given a major speech about health-care reform, explaining to the public the principles behind his plan and the practical steps he would take! That would have changed everything! Oh, but wait—he did. Multiple times. Here's a speech he gave on it in June 2009. Here's a speech he gave on health-care reform to a joint session of Congress that September—maybe you've forgotten about it, but it was a pretty big deal at the time. Here's another speech he gave on it. We could go on.

Any time you're tempted to say, "The President has never said X!," you really ought to take some time to see if it's true, because chances are he has. And in this case, the president made the case for health care hundreds of times. He did it on an almost daily basis for an entire year. The fact that his campaign of persuasion wasn't as successful as many of us wanted it to be doesn't mean he and his administration just forgot to talk to the public about health-care reform.

In fairness, when President Obama himself was asked about his biggest mistake in an interview not long ago, he said it was that he had spent all his time on getting the policies right and hadn't spent enough time communicating with the American people. But that's the presidential version of the job interview response, "My greatest weakness? I guess it's that I work too hard." The fact that he says it, and the fact that you might like to believe it's true, doesn't make it so.

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