Do This! Do That! And Nothing Will Happen…Why Obama Should Not Have Given Tuesday’s Speech

President Obama made his first prime-time Oval Office address last Tuesday, to decidedly mixed reviews. Some of his most usually stalwart defenders, like Keith Olbermann and Chris (“My Leg Isn’t Tingling”) Matthews this time were not impressed.  For the most part, these critics wanted Obama to be more decisive and to convey a greater sense of command.  Some also wished that he came down harder on BP.

I share their concerns about the speech – but for different reasons.  This was Obama’s first nationwide address from the Oval Office.  On average, as indicated in this table from the American Presidency research project, presidents dating back to Coolidge make about 4 “major” addresses a year.

President total in term yearly average average monthly interval between speeches
Coolidge 25 5.0 2.4
Hoover 7 1.8 6.1
Roosevelt I 12 3.0 4.0
Roosevelt II 13 3.3 3.7
Roosevelt III 19 4.8 2.5
Roosevelt IV 1
Truman I 17 3.4 2.8
Truman II 15 3.8 3.2
Eisenhower I 21 5.3 2.3
Eisenhower II 20 5.0 2.5
Kennedy 15 5.0 2.3
Johnson 23 4.6 2.7
Nixon I 23 5.8 2.1
Nixon II 13 8.1 1.5
Ford 12 5.2 2.4
Carter 17 4.3 2.8
Reagan I 20 5.0 2.4
Reagan II 27 6.8 1.8
Bush 17 4.3 2.8
Clinton I 14 3.5 3.4

These numbers (which are based in part on research by Lyn Ragsdale) include the State of the Union and Inaugural addresses, so the average number of nationwide addresses originating from the Oval Office is fewer.  In short, a speech from the Oval Office historically signifies an historically important occasion.  As such, presidents typically use these addresses to make major policy pronouncements (Nixon announcing the invasion of Cambodia, for example), or to react to major events, such as Reagan’s speech in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.

The setting makes a difference in another way as well.  In a State of the Union speech or Inaugural Address, the President becomes part of a larger historical tapestry woven from the words and actions of his predecessors dating back to Washington.  That’s why certain themes – continuity, renewal, America as a beacon of hope and land of liberty – regularly occur in these events. These ceremonial speeches are as much about the country and its traditions as it is about the individual President.

In contrast, an Oval Office speech is a more intimate affair.  Presidents come into your living room to talk directly with you.  They can’t hide behind ceremony or tradition, and there is no immediate audience on which to play off. Some presidents – Ronald Reagan comes to mind – were generally superb in this setting.  Franklin Roosevelt, in his celebrated radio addresses, also excelled. What they succeeded in doing was conveying the sense that they were talking to you, and not simply addressing the nation.  It is not an easy task, and I thought Obama fell short of the mark on Tuesday. Although his words sought to convey a sense of urgency and decisiveness, his demeanor did not.  In my view, he appeared uncomfortably detached; he read the words, but did not convey the sense of passion or command the words were meant to elicit.

Part of the reason for this disconnect, I think, is because the speech lacked the proper substance, given the significance of the setting. Nothing had occurred in the oil spill that warranted an Oval Office speech now; oil continues to gush into the Gulf with no signs that anyone – including the Obama administration – is any closer to a solution.  Using your first Oval Office address to announce the appointment of a presidential commission, to promise that BP would cover the cleanup costs, and to remind us that we cannot continue to rely on drilling our way to energy self-sufficiency (you think?) seems decidedly anticlimactic.  Far better, I think, for Obama to have waited until the hole was plugged to appear on television. He could then have used that positive event as a springboard for pushing a new energy policy.  As it was, his speech merely reinforced the public impression that he has no immediate plan to plug the leak.  Words without action convey an impression of impotence – not command.

Why, then, did Obama decide to give this speech at this time, in this setting?  Because he feels compelled to demonstrate that he’s doing something about the spill. All presidents feel the weight of unrealistic expectations to do something about events over which they have very little control.  They take office expecting to lead, only to find that on most major events they possess very little means of doing so.  The sentiment is famously captured in Harry Truman’s remarks (as conveyed by Richard Neustadt) in anticipation of Dwight Eisenhower becoming president: “He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this!  Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Obama may lack misconceptions of his authority rooted in military service, but no doubt he is frustrated.  All presidents are, sooner or later.  Indeed, the major gaffes in most presidencies derive from this frustration – think Johnson and the decision to escalate the U.S. presence in Vietnam, Nixon and national security leaks, or Reagan and the Iran-contra affair. But these incidents provide an important lesson – one that is difficult for presidents and their advisers to accept: often the best presidential decision is to recognize when to do nothing.

It is understandable in this hothouse media-driven context that presidents feel compelled to take steps to reframe a negative news narrative in a more positive light.  In truth, however – despite what the talking heads may say – there is no compelling evidence that the oil spill is significantly undercutting Obama’s public support; his approval ratings have dropped perhaps 1-3% since the April explosion.  And even if it is, it is not clear that making speeches that simply highlight his inability to solve the root problem is the proper response.  It is often hard for presidents, sitting in the White House bubble, to see beyond the nightly news commentary emanating from the chattering class.  It may be harder for this president, who ostensibly gained office in part on his ability to use speeches to frame the news narrative, to recognize that rhetoric not supported by reality doesn’t convey leadership.

My advice?  Sit tight. Be patient.  Don’t try to substitute the perception of command for the reality.   Instead, trust the people to recognize the limits on presidential power and to respond accordingly.

3 comments

  1. Matt, not only should he not have given the speech; it will cost him dearly politically. What ever happened to a “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

    And you are right; his body language was awful and all the media, left and right picked up on that immediately.

    Will he get by this, or will it be an Iran Contra or a Katrina for him?

  2. I remember reading Truman’s comment about Eisenhower in Neustadt’s Presidential Power in my freshman year at college (1963). At the time it made sense to me. But, I have noticed that the assessment of Presidents usually changes with time, some go up and others go down.
    Eisenhower’s reputation seems to have been on a generally upward curve over the years. We now know that he preferred to work behind the scenes and let others be out front. Apparently the avuncular old man concerned about his golf game was a carefully crafted image.
    Also, Eisenhower worked in a variety of very political environments before he became President. He once worked for Douglas MacArthur and, during World War II; he dealt with FDR, Churchill, Montgomery, Patton, De Gaulle and all kinds of political situations. Truman’s view that Eisenhower was a political naïf is kind of hard to believe.
    I have often wondered if Professor Neustadt’s view of Eisenhower changed over the years, and would be interested in knowing if he ever discussed that.

  3. Dale – A very astute observation. As you note, Eisenhower’s reputation has risen since Neustadt first wrote Presidential Power in 1960, partly in response to the opening of archives that demonstrate that Eisenhower was much more of hands-on president than contemporary accounts suggested. Also, eight years of peace and relative prosperity began to look a great deal more impressive after Vietnam, the stagflation of the 1970’s, and budget deficits of the 1980’s.

    Neustadt took account of this new information, and in the last edition of Presidential Power, which came out in 1990, he included a case study that positively appraised Eisenhower’s handling of the French request to intervene on their behalf at Dien Bien Phu. For Neustadt, Eisenhower drew on his knowledge of military tactics to avoid allowing the U.S. to be sucked into a land war in Asia. So he did reappraise Eisenhower’s performance somewhat, although he remained convinced that Eisenhower was slow on civil rights and not quick enough to take on McCarthy.

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