President Barack Obama’s speech last week at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was an inspired effort, particularly given the inevitable comparisons between his oratory and the landmark address of Martin Luther King Jr. The president typically rises to the occasion in most of these moments where his personal passion level is intense and deeply felt.
Unfortunately, in many cases where Obama’s words could matter, he falls short.
A writer by nature, the president is arguably one of the most gifted natural wordsmiths in the history of the presidency, ranking along with Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. When Obama can lay down written prose instead of delivering it in person, he soars.
Off-the-cuff or off the teleprompter, he seems passionless, tepid and sometimes contradictory.
While many presidents have been bystanders to the Middle East peace process, Obama has been forced to react to a sea change in that region. When Libya and Egypt imploded, Obama didn’t issue a clarion call that resonated either there or internationally. Many in the Middle East, friend and foe, view the president as lacking a true compass.
In Syria, Obama has sounded stilted in the face of the deaths of 100,000 people. Only when there was clear evidence of the use of chemical weapons did the administration find the right words, and they were spoken by Secretary of State John Kerry, a seasoned politician and a near-president himself. Kerry spoke the words Obama should have and could have said when he called Syria’s chemical attack a “moral obscenity,” a highly memorable phrase. The voluble Vice President Joe Biden is more quotable as well, when he used the word “heinous.”
Obama’s most memorable words about Syria and the gassing of men, women, and children?
Last August, having drawn the now-famous “red line” that the U.S. military seems poised to cross with some sort of probable punitive airstrike, Obama’s rhetoric fell short of the mark.
Obama’s training as a law professor may have something to do with his innate rhetorical reserve in situations that call for more passion than diplomacy. The mark of a gifted politician is knowing when and how to use the major weapon in his arsenal: the crystal clarity of a rallying cry. Indeed, when it seemed that the president was flagging at his own political nominating convention in 2012, former President Bill Clinton is widely credited with energizing the Democrats far more effectively than their own nominee.
As we marked the anniversary last week of the Rev. King’s landmark speech, the phrase “I have a dream” was once again engraved in the hearts and minds of many Americans. It was a speech that ignited the nation to finally put segregation behind it with the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
President Obama’s own personal lesson cannot be clearer:
Actions matter more than words. But words matter. Still.