Oval Office Setting Won't Make Obama's Gulf Oil Spill Speech

A great speech can crystallize or catalyze a national moment, but rarely can it create one

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Almost a year and a half into his term, President Obama will give his first Oval Office address, on the ongoing oil spill disaster. The setting is meant in and of itself to send a message. "By choosing to speak to the nation on Tuesday night for the first time from the Oval Office, where his predecessors have spoken of wars and disasters, President Obama is conveying the gravity of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico," the New York Times reports.

Obama and his team must be careful, however. A successful presidential speech requires the message and the moment to sync. At their best, presidents understand that a great speech can crystallize or catalyze a national moment, but rarely can it create one. That is why so many of Obama's predecessors' memorably successful Oval Office speeches focused on singular events like wars. The record of Oval Office speeches focused on more diffuse themes--like a slowly unfolding natural disaster--is mixed, at best.

The best remembered Oval Office speeches relate to impending conflict and immediately unfolding crises. Think of Kennedy's Cuban Missile Crisis speech, Reagan's Challenger speech, Bush 41's speeches on the invasion of Panama and the start of the Gulf War, and Bush 43's speeches after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.

Even some speeches that spoke to broad national problems had immediate news pegs. JFK's famous June, 1963 speech to the nation on civil rights, for example, came at the successful resolution of the University of Alabama segregation fight, with Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of the school's registration building in order to keep the black students out. Kennedy had come under withering criticism for not speaking out enough on civil rights to that point. Even aides like my father, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., had been befuddled and disappointed. "Even if he has no power to act, he has unlimited power to express the moral sense of the people," Dad wrote in his journal in a sentiment that could as easily sum up the puzzled discontent many of us feel about Obama's reaction to the gulf crisis. But Kennedy sensed that the bully pulpit should not be overused. "People forget this when they expect me to go on the air all the time educating the nation," he told my father on another occasion. "The nation will listen only if it is a moment of great urgency." He saw such a moment after the University of Alabama situation was resolved, and he used it to great effect.

No one doubts that the gulf spill is a crisis, but it is not clear what about this moment is prompting the president to address the nation beyond a sense of public impatience for presidential leadership.

[See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the Gulf oil spill.]

Indeed, as Marc Selverstone of UVA's Miller Center tells Politico's Mike Allen, there are fewer instances of presidents speaking from the Oval Office "in relation to an ongoing domestic crisis." And speeches in that category generally range from the forgettable--who recalls Jimmy Carter's October, 1978 speech on inflation, or economic speeches from Ronald Reagan in February, 1981 and Bill Clinton a dozen years later?--to those that are memorable for the wrong reasons.

People remember Jimmy Carter's October, 1979 Oval Office address on the energy crisis as the "malaise speech," even though he never uttered the word. That speech was actually initially seen as a success, with his poll numbers going up, but the fullness of time has made it a shorthand for the failures of the Carter presidency. (My friend Walter Shapiro, a former Carter speechwriter, suggests Obama look to that speech for inspiration this evening; Walter makes some good points on content, but I can only hope that Jon Favreau and company are steering well clear of that suggestion.)

[See a slideshow on "5 Ways Obama Can Turn Around the Gulf Crisis."]

And in the fall of 1989, when some presidential aides worried that President George H. W. Bush hadn't yet achieved presidential stature in the public mind, they settled on an Oval Office address as a good way to remedy the problem, as I recount in White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. With drugs and crime as the nation's top concerns that summer that became the speech's topic. The speechwriters decided that Bush should hold up a bag of crack cocaine to illustrate the severity of the problem, a device which led overeager law enforcement officials to lure a hapless drug dealer to Lafayette Park so that Bush could say the crack was purchased right across the street from the White House. It was not, in the end, a speech that was memorable for any of the right reasons.

If Obama holds up a baggie filled with Gulf oil this evening it could be a bad sign of things to come.

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  • See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the Gulf oil spill.