By MICHAEL ORESKES, Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Barack Obama goes before his convention with a reputation as a great orator.
But is he?
Certainly, there have been moments that soared: his address to the 2004 convention and that moving election night in Chicago. Yet a close look at pivotal moments of his presidency finds that, more often than not, Obama has fallen short as a communicator.
That's the conclusion of one of the leading experts on presidential communications, Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Repeatedly, she asserts, Obama has failed to use the communication power of his office to further his goals and rally the country. So now he goes into his crucial convention speech with high expectations from his successes and yet a mixed record as communicator-in-chief.
Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, examined six pivotal moments for an article in the next issue of Polity, a political science journal. She found that in five, Obama did not deliver.
Sometimes the problem was the writing. Sometimes it was the stage management. In one case he just had nothing to say.
Here are her six cases:
ELECTION NIGHT 2008
The moment a candidate is elected president, his role shifts. Obama handled this transition well in his speech from Grant Park in Chicago. He praised his opponent, John McCain, and reworked his campaign slogan — "Yes, we can" — into "a shared commitment to a common vision," Jamieson says.
"To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn," Obama said that night, "I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too."
The country was moved, and Obama's reputation for oratorical skill was reinforced.
But things began to go badly, rhetorically speaking, even before Obama took office.
As the candidate becomes president-elect, "any subsequent lapse into campaign rhetoric is role-shattering," Jamieson says. But that is precisely what happened two nights before his inauguration. Obama went to the Lincoln Memorial and delivered "a maladroit response to the role of president-elect," addressing his supporters rather than the whole country.
"Yours are the voices I will take with me every day I walk into that Oval Office," Obama told supporters.
Jamieson said "Obama violated a requirement of pre-inaugural rhetoric when he shifted from his rhetoric of shared interest to ... a reprise of his stump speech."
Inaugural addresses are among the nation's ultimate communal moments. To be effective, Jamieson says, inaugural addresses need a moment that digests the core ideas into a single memorable phrase. This need precedes even the age of sound bites, as illustrated by Thomas Jefferson ("We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists") and Franklin D. Roosevelt ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself").
Obama failed to do this, Jamieson asserts. Press coverage searched in vain for "the intended core of the address," grabbing disparate phrases from the speech, such as "new era of responsibility" and "starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
"Unsurprisingly, then," Jamieson concluded, "the fact that the country's first African-American president delivered the 2009 inaugural is more fixed in memory than any statement from it."
Obama's first Oval Office speech was in response to the Gulf oil spill. Obama had made environmental "peril" a campaign theme, saying it was urgent to act so that "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."
This created expectations for action when Obama spoke to the country about the oil spill, Jamieson says. With oil surging into the Gulf from a blown BP well, Obama noted that as a candidate he had "laid out a set of principles that would move our country toward energy independence." The House of Representatives had passed legislation to enact these principles. But instead of pressing for the Senate to follow, Jamieson says, "President Obama temporized and conciliated," apparently knowing he didn't have 60 votes in the Senate.
"I'm happy to look at other ideas," the president told the nation.