09 Sep 2011

Obama Gave Perhaps the Best Speech of his Presidency, and Nobody Cared

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From today’s emailed The Goldberg File by Jonah Goldberg:

Obama gave perhaps the best speech of his presidency last night and no one cares (for an excellent recap see this Taiwanese animation)..

Maybe I am alone in this, but have you ever noticed that when you watch a recording of a movie — on a DVR, DVD, Blueray whatever — and you rewind a scene or even a snippet of dialogue, it suddenly makes whatever the actor is saying seem fake? Watch Don Corleone deliver a great little 30-second speech in The Godfather and then rewind it and watch it again, and suddenly you can see that it’s an actor reciting words. The more you do it, the more fully you’re removed from the flow of the movie.

Something similar happens for political reporters who follow politicians around on the stump. Once you’ve seen a candidate give the same speech — with the same uhs and ahs, the same choked-up moments, the same comedic pauses — a dozen, two dozen times, it becomes impossible not to grow jaded and cynical about it. You may still like the politician, but the substance of what he’s saying fades into the background.

Heck, we all know that if you just say a word over and over and over and over again, it soon starts to sound funny or fake. Quick: say “sponge” twenty times fast.

That’s where we are with Obama, I think. He’s become an endlessly looped highlight reel. He says the same things, makes the same arguments, uses the same debater’s tricks, and can’t understand why he’s not getting the same reaction he got in 2007-2008.

He’s the political equivalent of an aging Vegas crooner who doesn’t understand why 25-year-old girls don’t still give him their hotel room keys when he sings “Fly Me to the Moon” the way they did when he was 50 pounds lighter and 30 years younger.

The old lines don’t work anymore either. C’mon baby, did I tell you that Warren Buffet wants his taxes raised? You’ve got to dig that.

This has always been an acute problem for Obama because his meteoric political rise had more to do with the dynamics of faddishness than they did with merit or experience. He belonged in the category of Beanie Babies and Justin Bieber more than that of Lincoln or FDR.

It must be very frustrating for Obama, because he seems to think he “delivers” when he gives a good speech. But politicians, even non-faddish ones, aren’t like baseball players, who deliver the goods when they get on base or hit a home run. If a good baseball player does the same thing he did last year or ten years ago, he’s an all-star. If a politician simply repeats what he did last year, he’s in danger of being a has-been.

Obama’s speeches get “better” in the same sense that when we talk to people who don’t speak a word of English, we think if we say things louder and slower they will suddenly understand English. Rhetorically, he talks louder and slower by simultaneously clarifying and becoming more strident in making arguments he’s made a million times before.

Meanwhile, his political operation is like the entourage who tells the crooner he’s still got it baby. Work that cowbell one more time.

I think the reason it comes across so glaringly as a performance is that Obama, for all his creased-pants Niebuhrian nuance, is stunningly unreflective about himself. His public persona is nearly always “I meant to do that.” So there was no acknowledgment that all of his “new ideas” last night weren’t new. No acknowledgement that he tried this stuff before in the stimulus. It’s just one more encore of “Fly Me to the Moon.”

I should say there have been times where he has admitted fault, but even then it comes across badly. His admissions that “shovel-ready” wasn’t shovel-ready (which should have been a scandal) either took the form of a condescending giggle or a report of fact that he assumed everyone else would be surprised by, too. He discovered that “shovel-ready” was b.s., and rather than report this as confirmation that Obama was outrageously learning on the job, the media acted like the man had confirmed the existence of an heretofore unknown atomic particle. Of course we can forgive you for not knowing shovel ready jobs don’t exist, the NY Times crowd seemed to say, because we thought they existed too!

All of the other times he’s admitted failure, it’s been a kind of humble brag. After Scott Brown’s election and again after the 2010 “shellacking,” he explained his biggest failure was that he, in effect, hadn’t sang “Fly Me To The Moon” louder and better with accompanying cowbell. In other words (heh), if only he gave people more Obama, everything would be better. It reminds me of the Campbell Scott character in Singles who thinks if he can just explain that his idea for commuter rail involves providing commuters a really, really good cup of coffee, everyone will understand the genius of his boondoggle.

Yes, I know Obama is trying to “trap” the GOP, and his advisers are moving little pewter toy-soldier versions of Boehner and Cantor on giant maps in the West Wing playroom. But at its core, last night’s speech was built around the assumption that all that separates Obama from a second term and greatness is one more really good speech, when the truth is that all that separates Obama from a second term and greatness is Obama.


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