Tuesday, October 16, 2012

David Bromwich on Obama's speaking style

David Bromwich is a close observer of Obama's words and how they connect with his policies. Also he sometimes dabbles in pop psychology while doing it, I've found his analyses of Obama particularly insightful.

A couple of years ago in The Fastidious President (London Review of Books 32/22 11/18/2012), Bromwich talked about Obama's two basic speaking styles with particular reference to press conferences:

I recently listened to some of John Kennedy’s press conferences, and was struck, not by his charm and easy control of the press, the usual traits that people bring up, but rather by his quickness and conversational rhythm. Kennedy’s answers are detailed and matter of fact, and though he occasionally speaks of his own views, he treats Congress as an equal partner. He sometimes shows irritation and is none the less cogent for that. He can speak a whole paragraph when a thought comes all at once without a pause. Any observer of Obama realises that, by contrast, he is always slow, always circumspect, and he has two distinct registers of diction: one for talking to very clever but abstracted people, the other for talking to well-meaning people who are very young or very old and certainly need remedial help. In the higher idiom he talks of a ‘critique’ of policy and ‘trend lines’ and the ways to ‘incentivise’ better care and ‘prioritise’ the next steps of government assistance to show that we are ‘doing everything we can to accelerate job creation’. It is the language of a technocrat, the man at the head of the conference table. In the lower idiom, there are lots of ‘folks’, ‘folks who oppose me’, ‘a whole bunch of folks’, interspersed with vaguely regional comfort words like ‘oftentimes’. [my emphasis]
That second kind of diction was very much on display in the first debate with Mitt Romney. The next day, Obama was able to use a speech to ridicule some of Romney's position in a way that he was completely unable to do the evening before.

The second debate is set up in town-hall format, so we can expect Obama to be more in that second, "remedial help" mode there. Not that it's bad. After all, the man won the Presidency in 2008 as the first African-American elected to that office. He was obviously doing something right.

Although it's not entirely clear if Bromwich was including traditional campaign speeches in that two-dictions part, the one-way type speech when Obama addresses a crowd gives him a chance to use soaring but vague rhetoric, e.g., "the fierce urgency of now." Or, "This is our time, America!"

Bromwich has a recent piece in which he observes that Obama is comfortable with those types of speeches, how they are compatible with his seemingly compulsive centrist/postpartisan aspirations, and what it was about Biden's debate performance last week that was particularly effective: Saying It Straight in October Huffington Post 10/13/2012.

What Biden did that Obama failed to do in the first debate was to give people arguments against the Romney-Ryan positions and in favor of the Administration's. Jennifer Granholm on Current TV commented that Biden gave a lot more detail. But my impression watching the debate was Ryan seemed to be rattling of a lot of figures (of dubious reliability), the kind of talk that made him look like the punditocracy's dream of a Serious Conservative Policy Wonk. Biden shot that down by talking about specific policies but doing so with in a conceptual framework that let people view Obama's policies favorably and Romney-Ryan's unfavorably. It wasn't so much the detail as the relevance.

As Bromwich puts it:

By nature and disposition, Barack Obama is a man who blends and consolidates. The plaintive undertone that you hear sometimes, under his heartiest shout, really says to his listeners "How can anyone reject what I'm saying? This is so reasonable. And we know it already -- it's enough to remember what we know. Now, come along with me and agree that this is what we've always stood for."

But not everyone knows, not everyone agrees, not everyone will call it reasonable unless the arguments and history are laid out in a connected order. In last night's debate, Joe Biden brought a reminder of what it sounds like when a politician offers reasons. He did not vaguely concede and back away as Obama did a few nights earlier when he said he probably agreed with his opponent about Social Security. Biden recalled that Republicans want to privatize Social Security and that, as recently as 2005, they were for entrusting personal holdings to the stock market. How well would that have worked? Beyond the minutiae of Medicare and vouchers, Biden remembered that the Republican Party was unfriendly to Medicare from the start.
And he argues this was effective because, "These weren't extended reasons, and they didn't develop as full arguments, but they were reasons and arguments: the part of persuasion that Obama has always dismissed too lightly."

He uses as an example Obama's referring to "the mess we're in" being the result of previous policies. But Obama doesn't then give a sketch of what those policies were and how they harmed the country. Bromwich recommends that for the second debate and the rest of the campaign generally that Obama should "think twice about calling a time of widespread suffering 'the mess we're in.' It isn't something that someone spilled in the kitchen. The reality has a history, and there are names that can be named."

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