Few White House staffers are as important to the success of a presidency as the chief speechwriter and his or her deputies. Their job is to think like the president and develop an intimate understanding of his values, his policies, his politics, and the way he expresses himself. At a panel of White House speechwriters that I moderated last week at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, some of those aides talked about their craft and gave insights into the presidents for whom they worked. They talked about how presidents cope with crisis and adversity and how they deal with what passes for normalcy in the West Wing.
But what was perhaps most striking was their negative assessment of President Obama and the state of his rhetoric. Former presidential speechwriters, as deft wordsmiths, cherish a special turn of phrase, a flair for the dramatic, and words that shape history or capture an important moment in the life of the nation. But this bipartisan group found Obama lacking as a communicator, especially compared to his performance as a candidate. They said he seems to have lost his gift for reaching the country in an inspirational way. And they agreed that he has become too academic and hasn't connected sufficiently with everyday people.
These critics include Ted Sorensen, who wrote for President John F. Kennedy and is probably the most iconic speechwriter of all because he worked so closely with such a charismatic leader. Obama needs to remember that, when addressing the country, he is not talking to the editorial board of the New York Times or the faculty of MIT, but to everyday middle-class people, Sorensen said, adding that Obama comes across too often as "a little too professorial."
Michael Waldman, one of Bill Clinton's former chief speechwriters, said Obama should have used the economic crisis of the past two years as a "teachable moment" to educate the country on the need for an economic stimulus. While Americans were paying close attention to the president's words during that period, "he didn't explain it," Waldman said.
Landon Parvin, speechwriter for Ronald and Nancy Reagan, agreed. Americans have "tuned out" Obama because "they've heard it all before," Parvin said. "He's at a low point rhetorically."
Mike Gerson, formerly with U.S. News, who wrote for President George W. Bush, said Obama as a candidate showed an impressive "coolness" and "rationality" during the economic meltdown of 2008, but Americans now want a different, more personal type of leadership. At a time when many voters are turning against big government and big business, Obama seems "very nonpopulist" and needs to demonstrate more empathy for everyday people, Gerson argued.
Chris Matthews, a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and now the host of the TV talk show Hardball, went further. Not only has Obama failed to make an effective argument for using massive federal spending to stimulate the economy, Matthews said, he has also failed to address larger themes of unity and common values that could inspire the country. "He hasn't talked about what holds us together." Matthews also argued that Obama is making a mistake by not defending his healthcare law aggressively. "He should be so proud" of that law, because the changes will help so many Americans, Matthews said.
The panelists spent much of the evening trading fascinating stories about life inside the White House and what their presidents were really like behind the scenes. Reagan, for example, was deeply admired for his understanding of television and the power of public image. Clinton was praised for his ability to empathize.
The former aides said that the fractured, raucous nature of the 24-hour news cycle and its fierce velocity had greatly increased demands on speechwriters because of the need to keep up with the sheer volume of the news. "As the importance of public communications has grown, so has the importance of the aides who help presidents speak," writes Robert Schlesinger, my U.S. News colleague, in his 2008 book White House Ghosts.