On Sunday during the Super Bowl, President Barack Obama graciously fielded partisan questions and suffered no less than 32 interruptions to his answers from Fox News commentator and grumpy Republican roustabout Bill O'Reilly. Yesterday our president spoke eloquently to an assembled crowd of CEOs about the need to work together to get Americans into jobs, spur innovation, and create a future worthy of our great nation at the gates of hell, otherwise known as the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.
Both of these televised appearances demonstrate that as a leader President Obama is both practical and fearless, that he is not about to be cowed by those who organize and speak against him, and that he means to get things done in a way that is rhetorically and politically savvy. If nothing else, he proved that he is a real political leader. He is dedicated to moving us forward as well as to ensuring a better chance at his own relection.
As a communication scholar who is interested in leadership of organizations and nations, I am perhaps more attuned to where, how, and with what tools a president speaks than I am to the finer details of what he speaks about. This is not because I am guilty of Socrates' charge that rhetoricians don't have to know the truth before speaking and therefore present a clear and present danger to the Republic. It is instead because that while I believe that knowing or discovering the truth--insofar as that is ever possible in politics--a requisite part of rhetorical due diligence, I know also that Cicero was correct in his pronouncements about the style of an argument being a key to persuasion as well as to the notion of a "good man speaking well" being key to leadership. Hence, what I look for is how a speaker adapts his rhetoric to his audience and situation without sacrificing either the truth or his principles.
That said, as a communication scholar, I give Obama high marks for his rhetorical performances of late. He made O'Reilly look like what O'Reilly is--a bully pundit whose only interest is in promoting O'Reilly. Obama adapted to him by not taking the obvious interviewing bait, not criticizing O'Reilly for his rude interruptions, and by reaffirming his core principles on health care, Egypt, and even football in a language that average Americans understand. He also appeared to all the world as a president should appear--confident, intelligent, firm on the fundamentals of his game and his love of our nation, but not without a relaxed, self-depreciating sense of humor.
Similarly, his speech to the Chamber of Horrors, er, excuse me, Commerce, displayed a clear ability to remain cool and collected under fire, and to be capable of inspiring even this audience openly opposed to his presidency to loud applause. He appealed to their role as citizens in promoting the public good as well as profits, and he promised further tax cuts that should be used to create jobs. He walked out of that building in far better shape politically than when he entered it, and mostly because he was able to adapt his speaking style and substance to a potentially negative situation in ways that make him appear to be not only the better person, but more importantly, the better person who is also the president of all of us.
Again, as a communication scholar, I am impressed and delighted. As a progressive, I am less satisfied.
For while I applaud Obama's rhetorical abilities and see
them as key to his success in getting any legislation through a contentious and
divided Congress, I am still wary of how much he gives up to get Republican
buy-in. I am still angry about
caving on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and disheartened every time I
hear him echo the big lie from conservative think tanks, pundits, and the tired
narrative carcass of Ronald Reagan about tax cuts for the rich and for
corporations being the key to our economic recovery. Trickle down never worked. Torrents of cash flowing upward into the bank and investment
accounts of the rich, and most of our manufacturing and service jobs going
overseas is all most Americans got out of that wry political soundbite
So would I love to see Obama become the man I thought I was voting for back in 2008? The man who would end the wars, close Guantanamo, tax the rich, and restore our good name in world affairs? Absolutely.
But I am also aware that if that man emerged to lead us now we wouldn't have health care reform, or better veterans' benefits, or a host of other good things that have come to pass under his style of leadership so far, much less the hoped-for good things we all want to see in the next two years. What we would have is failed president and presidency. The rich would still get richer, regardless. The banks and big corporations would still conspire with Wall Street. And the wars we are fighting would still be fought. What we wouldn't have is everything else he has managed to get through Congress.
So as much as I would have liked to have seen Obama's fist connect with O'Reilly's face, as much as I would have liked to have heard him take that roomful of fat CEOs to task for bringing this country down by withholding their stockpiled fortunes instead of investing in jobs for American workers, and as much as I would have paid very good money to wake up each and every day to the sound of an Obama raging against the evils of unrestrained capitalism, income inequality, predator banking and mortgage practices, unfunded wars, and so on, I know in my progressive heart that such a man would never be successful. Not in America. And we can't afford that kind of man because there is precious little room left in our economy, our schools, our health care, or our foreign policies for additional failure.
The hard truth I've come to is that there is no "win-win" in politics, only a choice between win-lose or compromise . We are a divided people. Meeting somewhere in between and then going home and laughing or crying about it is all we can do. At least, that is all we can do for now .
But that is not the rhetorical end of the story, or even close to it. Obama can change the game before he exits the stage and stretch the remaining two years to six years by remaining true to his inner light. By which I mean that light that comes from within him when he talks about America and Americans working together to move ahead. That light that spreads across his face, and that causes that infectious Obama smile to work miracles on just about everyone, even Bill O'Reilly.
The lesson our president learned from the midterm shellacking was that listening to the American people is important, hearing our need to see government working instead of stalemating is key to turning that political corner, but that speaking to us in a way that confidently bodies forth his enthusiasm for our collective future is paramount.
America is a country of rugged optimists who disagree about almost everything. That's always been true. The founders disagreed about every article in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, save the one true purpose of government, which is "assent " to laws that promote the public good." It is that one true purpose that Obama has returned to since the midterm elections, and it is with a smile on his face and an American song in his heart that he is challenging the right to either work with him or to find an even better way.
That is the Obama, that is the leader, America--all of us--have been waiting for. As president, he is at least partially a progressive leader, or else we wouldn't have health care reform, but he is also the symbolic high sheriff of a contentious cow town piled high with rhetorical rubbish, where loudmouths with microphones and crazy people with guns frighten the daylights out of the rest of us and cause politicians to threaten to close down the government.
His job is to keep the peace as well as to promote justice. To keep the streets open for commerce as well as for informed rhetorical traffic. As high sheriff he must be a good mediator who offers us a calm voice of reason. To do his job well means getting the rest of us to give up something in order to get something or somewhere better, which in this case means to get us to volunteer to help move the rubbish out of the way so we can see what needs to be done and then to do it.