Speeches Are Not Enough for Obama to Succeed

He’s got a great fastball, but he needs other pitches.


Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in baseball history. For a dozen years, baseball fans have known that his arrival in a close ballgame virtually guarantees a New York Yankees victory.

What makes Rivera's dominance more astounding is the fact that his repertoire consists of a single pitch, the cut fastball. Prolonged Major League pitching success usually involves more than one type of pitch. Rivera is different. Batters know what's coming, but they still can't hit him.

Presidents are like pitchers. Success requires doing several things well; they cannot rely on one political skill. Their effectiveness is ultimately a function of their ability to exercise all elements of presidential power.

Which brings us to Barack Obama, who might be as near as professional politics has to a Mariano Rivera. Obama has ridden a single pitch—speechmaking—to the pinnacle of politics. He spoke his way to the White House and has hardly quieted since. And with his presidency experiencing its first serious rough patch, he went back to his strength last week with the kind of pitch only a president can throw: a speech before a joint session of Congress.

But while Obama and his team understand the power of presidential rhetoric, nagging questions remain about whether they understand its limits.

To be sure, it is hard to understate the importance of the "bully pulpit." The two most effective modern presidents were also the two most eloquent—Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. And even our less eloquent chief executives are often remembered for how their special moments of oratorical brilliance galvanized a nation (Lyndon Johnson promising that "we shall overcome") or educated the people (Dwight Eisenhower's warning about "the military-industrial complex").

And the leaders who never grasped the importance of that aspect of presidential power did not last long in office. Think of George H.W. Bush (most remembered for a phrase, "Read my lips," which he uttered before becoming president), Jimmy Carter (most remembered for a word, malaise, he did not say in the so-called malaise speech), and Gerald Ford.

But the presidents who best understood the power of words also understood their limits. The Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. (my grandfather) wrote to Roosevelt in 1935 complaining that the president had not maintained the pace of intensive public communication set in his early days in office. "I agree with you about the value of regular reporting," FDR replied. "My difficulty is a strange and weird sense known as 'public psychology.'" That sense had quieted him, he noted, lest he get mired and mixed up in the public eye with an ongoing squabble among political radio commentators. The president has the most commanding voice on the political scene, FDR knew, but it could be degraded through overuse both because it could become one of many and because people could become inured to it. "Individual psychology cannot, because of human weakness, be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note on the scale," he told another acquaintance that year.

FDR redefined the rules of presidential communication in ways that linger today. One important rule for the president and his team: Beware overexposure lest you squander presidential power. Warnings abounded of Obama fatigue as early as the spring, but White House strategists replied that the old wisdom was no longer operative. "His strategists say the media are so fragmented that he needs to communicate to many different audiences in many different ways," my colleague Ken Walsh reported in March.

Even if that is true, presidents must skillfully use more than one aspect of presidential power. For a speech to be effective, the broader political context has to be receptive to the message. But if anything, Obama's legislative strategy has undercut his great strength. On healthcare, he has laid out broad principles but, before last week's address, let others fill in the details. This approach bespeaks the leadership of a Senate majority leader or a House speaker rather than a president, one of many equals rather than the pre-eminent voice guiding a debate. And while broad principles have their place, once the debate moves to specifics, you cannot fend off attacks with generalities. Richard Nixon used to say that if something doesn't work on paper, it probably doesn't work. One could add that if something never makes it onto paper, it certainly won't work.