Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Are Barack Obama's Oratorical Skills Sufficient to Commend Him to the Presidency?

Richard Greene says that Barack Obama's one speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention proves he's ready to be president. Dan Carol agrees.

Barack Obama is an obviously intelligent man and a terrific speaker. His potential is seemingly limitless; one can easily envision him sitting in the Oval Office one day.

But I don't understand the pell mell rush on the part of those who support him to see him nominated in 2008.

He’s been in the US Senate since January, 2005 and has scant local political experience.

Are his skills as an orator sufficient reason to nominate him?

The capacity to connect with people through oratory is an important political skill, often missing in contemporary leaders. It may even be the most desirable and necessary of skills for truly great leadership.

But through the years, there have been political wunderkinds who wowed their parties, then fizzled when they proved to be not quite ready for prime time.

William Jennings Bryan impressed Democrats late in the nineteenth century, so much so that he was nominated for president three different times. In the end, his oratory proved stirring, but his leadership shallow. When, in deference to his standing as a leader of their party, Woodrow Wilson appointed Bryan to be his secretary of state, Bryan proved completely ineffectual.

In the late-1930s, a young district attorney from New York City, a silver-tongued orator who had courageously gone after mobsters was nominated by the Republicans, first in 1944, losing to Franklin Roosevelt and then in 1948, going down to the most ignominious defeat in presidential election history, the most notorious “one that got away” ever. The oratorical skills of Thomas Dewey proved, by a few votes, not to be as persuasive as the plain speech--and the substantive policies--of Harry Truman.

Also back in the 1930s, Republican Harold Stassen hit the national scene, the celebrated “boy governor” of Minnesota. His ascent to the presidency was sometimes seen as a matter of course. But Stassen, infected with the sense of White House entitlement some would today confer on Barack Obama, became the victim of his own headlines. Stassen eventually became a tragic laughingstock, a perennial candidate for president, marginalized to being nothing more than a punchline in ‘Tonight Show’ jokes.

Obama appears to have a bright political future. But those who support him would be well-advised to truly support him. Let him get the seasoning of national political experience and an expanded national network of friends and contacts which an effective president needs.

Some will argue that the current occupant of the White House had a scant five years as the constitutionally weak governor of Texas before being elected president in 2000. But surely, even if, as is likely of Obama supporters, you believe that George W. Bush has been a bad president, that’s no argument for electing someone who has less significant political experience than Mr. Bush had when he went to the White House.

Fine oratory can reflect the workings of a fine mind, the capacity for empathy, and the ability to communicate policy convincingly. But oratorical skills and the qualities which may (or may not) lie behind them prove nothing about a potential president’s ability to deal with the unanticipated national security crisis as she or he sits in the Situation Room. It says nothing about their ability to see their way to a compromise among members of Congress in order to advance a legislative agenda or agreement between foreign leaders in order to advance peace. In private, as Roosevelt often confided to aides after listening to another flight of negotiating table oratory from Churchill, rhetorical skills can be tiresome and ineffective. One must know how and when to use it.

And speaking of Churchill, to whom Greene refers, he was maybe the greatest political leader of the twentieth century, much of his leadership exerted through the power of his oratory. But remember that when Churchill was elevated to prime minister, he’d already had a lifetime of political experience, both legislative and executive. That portfolio included some disasters which had taught him a lot. (Success is an awful teacher compared to failure.) Churchill proved ready for prime time not just because he was an eloquent and insightful speaker. His great oratory was a tool for advancing his goals as a leader. Barack Obama clearly has the tool of oratory. But his supporters would, I think, be well-advised to give him time to develop himself as a leader.

[WOW!: I am honored beyond words by what Annie at Ambivablog says in linking to this post. She calls this "the definitive post on why Barack Obama's undeniable oratorical skills are not enough to qualify him for the presidency in 2008. Lucid, comprehensive, and conclusive -- case closed." Thank you so much, Amba!]

[FURTHER THANKS TO: Amba for linking to this post over at Donklephant.]

[THANKS TO: Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice for linking to this post.]

[NOTE: People may not like politics or politicians, but they do want their Presidents to have some political savvy. That's the thrust of my response to jpe's comments below. Thanks to jpe for commenting.]

[FURTHER THANKS TO: TruthLaidBear for linking to this post. Also see here.]

[MORE THANKS TO: Maverick Views for linking to this post. I appreciate it.]

[THANKS TO: Rick Moore of HolyCoast for linking to this post. Thanks, Rick!]


tm said...

I think you err in considering political experience an asset, rather than a liability, in a political campaign. W/re/to Kerry or Dole, for instance, their substantial history in lawmaking was used against them (rather dishonestly, more often than not) time and time again. By contrast, comparative neophytes like Bush and Clinton didn't have the long records from which votes/stances could be cherrypicked.

Given that political reality, the political watcher looks not at policy expertise, but at political instinct. And Obama's centrist, big-tent instincts augur well for him.

Mark Daniels said...

I believe that political experience is still an asset for a presidential prospect. However, some figures become such old Washington hands that they are readily dismissed by voters. Kerry and Dole certainly fell into that category.

Americans have, for more than a century, been likelier to elect governors than senators to the presidency. They're seen as outsiders, not part of the "inside the Beltway" crowd.

In fact, the only persons I can think of who have been elected President directly from the Senate are Warren Harding in 1920 and John Kennedy in 1960.

But governors and generals, each often with their own political experiences, are eminently electable. People feel that their background as leaders is suitable preparation for the presidency.

In fact, let's look at each of the elections since 1900, noting the offices which each winner held at the times of their elections:

1900: William McKinley (governor of Ohio); 1904: Theodore Roosevelt (McKinley's VP, he became president when McKinley was assassinated; he had been governor of New York with other political experience when nominated for the vice presidency); 1908: William Howard Taft (had served in TR's cabinet and as governor of the Philippine territory); 1912 and 1916: Woodrow Wilson (governor of New Jersey); 1920: Warren Harding (senator from Ohio); 1924: Calvin Coolidge (Harding's Veep, he was serving as governor of Massachusetts at the time he was nominated for that post); 1928: Herbert Hoover (a millionaire mining engineer, Hoover turned his attention to relief work during WWI and was serving in the Cooldige cabinet when nominated for President); 1932, 36, 40, & 44: Franklin Roosevelt (governor of New York); 1948: Harry Truman (FDR's VP, he was a senator when nominated for that spot, previous experience as what they call a county "judge" in Missouri, but is really a commissioner, an administrative position); 1952 & 56: Dwight Eisenhower (a general with extensive political experience, a political general in the best sense of that term); 1960: John Kennedy (senator from Massachusetts); 1964: Lyndon Johnson (one-time Senate Majority Leader who had been JFK's Veep, elevated to the presidency when Kennedy was assassinated); 1968 & 72: Richard Nixon (former VP, a position he held under Eisenhower); 1976: Jimmy Carter (had most recently serves as governor of Georgia, two years before his election as president); 1980 & 84: Ronald Reagan (his only political office was governor of California, from which he had stepped down several years before); 1988: George H. W. Bush (the first standing VP to be elected directly to the presidency since Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson's Vice President had done it); 1992 & 96: Bill Clinton (governor of Arkansas); 2000 & 04: George W. Bush (governor of Texas).

As much as voters inveigh against politicians, they find it difficult to actually nominate elective political office novices like Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and others who've made bids for the presidency. They value political experience, they just aren't in love with Washington political experience, which may say that the best thing that the young and charismatic Barack Obama could do is run for governor of Illinois and then tackle the presidency.

Thanks for your comments.


Larime said...

Kennedy was Senator for 1 term before becoming President, and he handled the Cuban Missle Crisis, arguably the most intense moment in modern history.

Ultimately, it's the character, not the experience. Otherwise Senators would be getting elected President all the time. They aren't, because they're too Washington, too insider. Senators are the least likely to get elected President.

So which is it? You can argue until you're blue in the face that he needs more experience, but electoral history suggests he should run now if he wants a shot to win. That's how Kennedy did it.

Mark Daniels said...

Kennedy was first elected to the House in 1946, meaning that he had spent fourteen years in the Congress before becoming President, including eight years in the Senate. So, experience was an important teacher for him, I think. I already mentioned in an earlier comment that Kennedy was one of only two Presidents to be elected while serving in the Senate--the other being Warren Harding.

Obama needs more experience.

Thanks for your comments.


Apartment 604 said...

As far as inexperience and presidential material goes, two words: Abraham Lincoln.

Larime said...


I do find it interesting that Harding and Kennedy both were attractive, charismatic men, like Obama.

Whether or not he's ready to do it, he's certainly in the right mold to pull it off.

Of course Harding was a pretty bad President.

Anonymous said...

Obama needs to get himself elected Governor of Illinois and run the state for a little while. Then he'll be ready to be President.

Apartment 604 said...

Yeah, ummm, Illinois governors haven't had a very good track record in recent years ;)

Mark Daniels said...

Apartment 604:
It's true that Lincoln served only one term in Congress. But, as first a Whig and then, a Republican, in what was a Democratic state, he was limited in what major statewide offices he could seek.

He did however, spend the better part of twenty years in the Illinois legislature and was prominent nationally in both the Whig and Republican parties before being nominated for president.

The upshot: He was far more politically seasoned and connected than his one term in Congress, on the surface, indicates.

The fact that there have been some rather...interesting...governors in Illinois lately is all the more reason for a Mr. or Ms. Clean to come along and have a sterling run in the office. Obama has the potential for doing that.

Woodrow Wilson's reputation as a reforming governor in New Jersey stood him in good stead in his bid for the presidency.

(By the way, electing Wilson to the presidency was probably a big mistake. He was elected to the governorship in 1910, his first public office, and was elected President just two years later. In both the governorship and the presidency, he replicated his record as president of Princeton University. In all three positions, he had early successes, but because of his personal arrogance and self-righteousness was incapable of working with anybody who ever disagreed with him. He turned every vote--whether by university trustees, the New Jersey legislature, or the Congress--into moral crusades. Even if those who opposed his views were taking positions from which he had recently been converted, he couldn't understand how anybody could disagree with him. In the end, this characteristic destroyed both him and his presidency. Had America been given a bigger sampling of Wilson as a politician--in other words, if he'd been governor for more than two years, it's unlikely he would have been nominated or elected for the presidency. His first year in that office was seemingly a huge success. But he was such an insufferable victor that his second year was a legislative disaster, giving him one major defeat after another in the legislature. But by then, his presidential bandwagon was on such a roll that nobody was noticing what he wasn't getting done in Trenton. Had that been noticed, history would have likely been changed. That's because experience matters.)

Thanks for commenting.


Apartment 604 said...

Mark, you make some fair points about Lincoln, but what really made him so great was not his experience but rather his character. In that department, I agree it's a bit early to know for sure, but Obama is looking very good.

I certainly think Obama is far more than just a gifted speaker - he also seems to be a real intellectual heavyweight, and his biggest gift seems to be his empathy, a trait that is sorely lacking here in DC. I'm really looking forward to reading his new book - which, unlike most politicians, he apparently wrote himself (gasp!).

I think he could be ready to run in 2008. Yeah, despite my remark before, I think it wouldn't hurt if he spent a little time as IL governor, but I see enough in him to overcome questions about his experience. But the main challenge for him will be staying somewhat focused on his work as a Senator until then. All the hype right now is a little counterproductive.

spark said...

It isn't possible to "prove" that one is ready for anything. At best there can be indications that one is ready. Actually, there are several of BO's accomplishments that indicate fairly well that he is in fact ready for the presidency. Columbia, Harvard Law and the president of the Harvard Law review (they don't just 'give' that one away!).

His accomplishments in the Illinois state house are widely respected by Repub's there. Profiled by NPR a few weeks ago:

Finally, widespread support by people from diverse backgrounds is very strong evidence of his ACTUAL ability to LEAD.

YJay Draiman said...

Obama’s Experience is not sufficient to be President

Would you let a first grade teacher teach a class in a graduate school?
The answer is absolutely not.

Our political system is complex and full of pitfalls. You must have experience in order to maneuver in Washington politics.

In order to accomplish any policy changes, implement campaign promises – one must know the political ropes it takes to pass any legislation.

The big issue with Obama’s policy changes; the central question is, “Who is the real Barack Obama?” I see the recent focus on “flip-flops” as misplaced, both because the term isn’t very helpful and because voters aren’t surprised by politicians who change their positions. More importantly, it doesn’t highlight the more damaging question: “When will Obama change his position again?” That question forces voters to consider the possibility that Obama is an unknown, is dishonest, or lacks the experience to know where he stands on issues. Like a used-car salesmen who tells you a price in the parking lot, only to change it when you sit down at his desk, Obama is similarly trying to find the right sales pitch to get you to commit to him, even if he’s a lemon. Obama's critics need to put the possibility of more Obama policy changes front and center, driving voters to choose the more reliable and consistent McCain over the trendy, untested Obama.

Many notes that “the Republican National Committee, in a statement cataloguing some half-dozen recent Obama 'flip-flops,' threw up its hands without offering answers,” that challenge should quickly be overcome by a campaign that catalogues Obama’s frequent and conflicting policy positions and does so while raising questions such as: “When will Obama change his position again? On Election Day? In the Oval Office? Or perhaps during unconditional meetings with our enemies? Can Obama, who touts change, be trusted to not change his positions again?" Perhaps most critically, Obama’s critics need to make clear that a political campaign is not the place where America wants its leaders developing their expertise and their positions, and the presidency is not the place for on-the-job training. McCain is experienced, tested, and consistent; Obama is inexperienced, untested and inconsistent. No amount of hope can change those facts.

Second, the campaign must drive home the details of Obama’s inexperience. This should be tied to the policy changes highlighted above. Many states that Obama has 4 years of experience in the U.S. Senate. That’s common rounding, but it’s inaccurate, and Obama’s critics should stop doing it, because it distracts from his dearth of experience (and the significance of his policy changes during his short tenure). On Election Day Obama will have just 3 years and 10 months of experience as a U.S. Senator. It was after just 1 year and 10 months working as a senator that he started eyeing the presidency (as alluded to on Meet the Press). Then, just 2 years and 12 days into his job as a senator, he formed his presidential exploratory committee.
Obviously, I’m splitting hairs by breaking his experience down into days and months — which is precisely the point. If Obama needs the benefit of a few months or days of rounding to seem ready to be commander-in-Chief, he’s got a serious experience problem. Moreover, if he can’t stay consistent during those short 3 years and 10 months, he has a serious experience problem coupled with a serious judgment problem. I did a little informal poll amongst friends, and most of them did not know that Obama had just 2 years of experience as a senator before deciding to run for president. They probably didn’t know that because it has not been consistently repeated. Saying Obama is inexperienced when he’s up against someone like McCain, with decades of experience, is one thing, but Obama’s inexperience is more than just comparative, it’s inexperience — period. No matter which way you frame it, 2 years and 12 days or 3 years and 10 months, both are facts which should be repeated until every voter knows them by heart.
So, given this lack of experience, one would expect some serious accomplishments from Obama during his 3 year and 10 month tenure, accomplishments that would merit nominating him to be president. However, no such record of accomplishments exists. He racked up the Senate's most liberal voting-record rating and a one-page résumé lacking in leadership experience, not exactly presidency-worthy accomplishments. Of course, in fairness, that’s not what Obama is running on. He’s running on his ability to inspire us, to bring about “change.” Given his vaunted ability to inspire, one would think he would have a legislative record to speak of. But he doesn’t. In his time in the Senate, his ability to inspire his colleagues ensured that just two bills he sponsored were signed into law. One can hope for change, but based on Obama’s record, it doesn’t seem that much is forthcoming.
Now, granted, Obama also has state legislative experience. But how many of us can even name our state senator, let alone confidently say that he or she should be the next President? Local government is great (in fact, I prefer it), but it’s not a proxy for the ability to lead a nation. The 13th legislative district of Illinois, where Obama was a state senator until the end of 2004, has a population of 112,599 (per State Senator Raoul’s office). That’s on par with a city like Peoria, Illinois. Now I’m sure that Mayor Ardis of Peoria is a great public servant, but I’m not about to nominate him for President without some significant leadership experience on national issues — even if Peoria is a community, a region and hometown as unique as its name. Similarly, Obama’s work as a state senator and his 3 years and 10 months as a U.S. senator are not sufficient substitutes for true national experience.
Which highlights the final point. In view of his non-existent record, Obama’s words must merit greater scrutiny because they are the only remaining measure voters have for what Obama believes. Those words have been woefully inconsistent over the totality of Obama’s short career, and are full of generalities like “hope” and “change.” In fact, the only consistent theme in his campaign is one policy change after another. All politicians modify their positions (including McCain), but usually those changes take place over a few years and as circumstances dictate. Obama's changes on dozens of issues came about in just three and a half years and not for policy reasons, but for political gain.
Obama’s game of musical chairs is filled with the hope that he’ll be sitting in the right place when the Election Day music stops. His critics need to make clear that sitting in the President's chair is not a game. Consistency and credibility both matter when dealing with enemies and allies. Obama’s 3 years and 10 months of inexperience — filled with generalities, uncertainty, and frequent policy changes — should be a unified theme of his critics. If Obama can’t maintain consistent policies over just a few short years, how can he possibly command the respect of our troops, win the support of our allies, and deter our enemies?