The speech also made no attempt to invoke the "heartbreaking images of oil drenched sea birds and tarred beaches," Jamieson says. "As a result of these failures, a speech with the potential to be presidency-defining instead proved unmemorable."
Presidents can use moments of national trauma to help the nation build meaning and heal together. Ronald Reagan did that after the Challenger exploded in 1986; Bill Clinton did after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
President Obama faced such a moment when a gunman shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others at a town meeting in Tucson. Obama's speech was well-crafted. Political opponents complimented the president. But the setting and Obama's delivery undercut his moment, Jamieson says. The eulogy was delivered in a sports arena in front of 14,000 people who responded with applause rather than amens or contemplation.
Responding to the applause, "the pace of the president's delivery quickened and his intensity increased as he spoke the address's most memorable lines." He made the speech fit the hall, not the moment, Jamieson says, and he offered a "delivery more similar to a stump speech than a eulogy."
She concludes that "an eloquently written speech was undercut by maladroit stage management."
DOWNGRADE OF AMERICA
On August 8, 2011, the stock market was cratering. The previous Friday evening Standard & Poor's, the bond rating agency, had downgraded America's credit. The government had failed to show it would curb deficit spending, the rating agency said. By noon the Dow had plunged by 2.75 percent.
The White House said the president would speak at 1 p.m. Cable channels began showing split screens of the falling market and the state dining room where the president was due to speak. 1 p.m. came and went. So did 1:15 and 1:30.
The president appeared, at last, at 1:52 p.m. "The speech that followed was not worth the wait," Jamieson says. "President Obama's response to the crisis was both poorly crafted and inadequately delivered."
Substantively, Obama had no effective response to the Standard & Poor's claim that the government was gridlocked. It was. The best rejoinder was offered by Warren Buffett, who that morning announced that the S&P action shook his faith in S&P, not the United States. Buffett said he would maintain his $40 billion investment in treasury bills. "Inexplicably," Jamieson says, "Obama omitted that central piece of evidence."
Beyond substance, the presentation was flawed. Obama's eyes moved back and forth between teleprompters, and he pursed his lips.
"Magnifying the speech's sense of detachment was the fact that Barack Obama is not adept at sounding empathetic," Jamieson says. Economic struggle and congressional gridlock were treated in the same tone. Says Jamieson, "To ask what difference this incapacity to communicate empathy makes, one need only imagine the same speech delivered by Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan."
The market continued to fall. "He would have been better advised not to speak, rather than speak ineffectually," Jamieson says. "His credibility as a leader was damaged by the failed attempt."
THIS MAY ALL seem mere academic deconstruction. But there are other such critiques, even from allies of the Obama administration.
Much of what voters think about a president is shaped by these moments. Ronald Reagan, with his blend of oratory and ability to convey empathy, demonstrated that dramatically. Not so this year's incumbent.
"As he enters the general election campaign of 2012," Jamieson concludes, "President Obama is a president without an armament of memorable defining statements that recap his vision and, within it, his successes."
That's a lot to repair. Even with the most eloquent of convention speeches.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Michael Oreskes, a veteran political reporter and editor, is senior managing editor for U.S. news at The Associated Press.