President Obama has been touring the country giving a series of speeches on creating middle-class jobs. The speeches don't seem to be working. Here's why:
The first of the series, which the president gave at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., clocked in at over an hour. If you can't make your case to an audience in 20 minutes, then you might want to rethink your case. The great courtroom lawyer Edward Bennett Williams advised to always limit your speeches to 20 minutes; after that, any audience of average intelligence will figure out that you don't know what you're talking about. Point well taken.
Not only was the president's Galesburg speech too lengthy, he delivered it right at lunch hour. President George H.W. Bush used to be very careful about keeping lunchtime speeches short because he assumed that the audience would rather eat than listen to him. Heading into a noon speech, he once said to me, "I hope they have pickles on the tables!" Obama would do well to abide by a basic rule of speechwriting: Respect the audience's time.
But there's a bigger problem than length or timing: Obama needs to stay on message. In his speeches, he says he's going to stay focused on jobs for "every minute" of the remaining 1,200-plus days in his term, then also promises to keep focused on gun control, immigration, climate change, civil rights and women's rights – none of which are anywhere near the top of the polls in terms of issues that most concern voters. (Those would be the economy, creating jobs, cutting the deficit and keeping Social Security solvent, according to Pew Research.) He also throws in mandatory preschool, student loan rates and, of course, a plug for Obamacare. No wonder the speeches are so long.
His stump speech these days also includes statements like these: "Now, today, five years after the start of that Great Recession, America has fought its way back. We fought our way back ..."
"We invested in new American technologies to reverse our addiction to foreign oil. We doubled wind and solar power ..."
"Over the past 40 months, our businesses have created 7.2 million new jobs. This year, we're off to our strongest private sector job growth since 1999 ..."
"Health care costs are growing at the slowest rate in 50 years. Our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years."
While technically correct, those statements just don't ring true. For example, when he talks about private sector job growth, the president doesn't mention that the vast majority of those new jobs are part time, and everyone knows it. Or that even though wind and solar power have "doubled," they only account for a tiny sliver – less than 4 percent – of U.S. electricity generation. He's right that we're seeing the "slowest growth" in health care costs in decades, but people know that "growth" still means these costs are going up. Ask any family if their health care costs have dropped. Deficits may be falling at the "fastest rate" in years, but they've merely gone from sky-high to massive, and remain at record levels. People see through it. Never treat your audience like they're stupid.
The day the president was in Galesburg to speak, he gave an interview to the New York Times which gave some insight into his mindset during this speaking tour. It included his harshest attack yet on the House Republicans. That same demonization of his opponents is now part of his speeches. He's making sharply polarizing statements not only to elite newspapers, but also to college students, transportation workers and warehouse employees in the heartland – rhetoric that is more appropriate for a closed-door Democratic fundraiser. Example: He explains there are those who differ with him "because, sincerely, they have a fundamentally different vision for America" – perhaps a nod that reasonable people can disagree? But no: "One that says inequality is both inevitable and just; one that says an unfettered free market without any restraints inevitably produces the best outcomes, regardless of the pain and uncertainty imposed on ordinary families; and government is the problem, and we should just shrink it as small as we can."
Another tip: Know your audience. Impugning the motives of those who have a reasonable concern about the growing size and scope of government isn't a good idea when so many feel that way. A Rasmussen poll reported this week a plurality (48 percent) of Americans want their governors to fight Obamacare's implementation in their state; that doesn't make them evil people who want to "impose pain and uncertainty" on other families. Roughly two-thirds of Americans feel our country remains on the wrong track, and the president's approval ratings are underwater. For the first time ever, a majority of Americans (53 percent) told Pew Research in January they feel the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms.
Speeches aren't given in a vacuum. Audiences put them in context. Americans know that no one's been held accountable for the IRS targeting of conservatives; nor has anyone been brought to justice for the murder of Americans in Benghazi, despite the President's initial promises to do both. Now in his speeches he calls them "distractions" and "phony scandals." He's lost his credibility. Given the disclosures about massive surveillance of citizens by the National Security Agency, it's not shocking that so many feel threatened by the government. It's all feeding the notion that government is growing too big and too out of control and too untruthful.
That's why the president's speeches aren't breaking through, why it's hard to take him at his word, and why Americans aren't listening to him anymore. You reap what you sow.
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