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The President Doth Gesture Too Much

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at Obama’s gestures. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

President Barack Obama gave his first speech from the Oval Office last Tuesday. It wasn’t great, as most commentators have noted.

To begin with, the White House appears to believe that body language is presidential language. Our eyes were constantly drawn to the bottom quarter of the screen, where the president’s hands seemed to have taken on a life of their own. If our democracy has degenerated from deeds to words, we’re now becoming accustomed to gestures. Our great deliberative democracy, reduced to a series of hand flicks.

The words weren’t that good either. Even though the President was, understandably, trying to signal strength and decisiveness with words and gestures, he had to lace his speech with tentative caveats in a bid to lower our expectations about what can be achieved and how soon – another presidential goal on Tuesday night. As a result, the speech was wishy-washy, tepid and pointless. It looked and sounded like a damage-control skit, and the president looked like he had George Clooney‘s PR job in “Up in the Air” – telling the American people harsh news and artificially sweetening the news with an a dose of saccharine.

Talking about enlisting scientists and experts doesn’t help when they can’t even agree on the size of the oil spill. And everyone can see that the purpose of telling the American people how serious the problem served, selfishly, only to tell us that the president feels our pain. It is gratuitous at best and condescending and worst. Empathy and euphemisms together do not eloquence make.

The administration was hoping for a game-changer in this speech. But not even the weight of his office was able to help this young, politically inexperienced president stave off the inflexion point he did not intend. From now on, it looks like there will be no more free passes from Rachel Maddow and the liberal media.

If Obama is our era’s Greatest Communicator, then perhaps the only good that came out of this speech is that we may begin to realize that no rhetorical wizardry can solve our nation’s crises. There is no messiah, and there is definitely no rhetorical messiah. Indeed, I would go one step further and hope that we all realize that eloquence is not the solution to our problems. Eloquence – our atavistic yearning for a grand orator, a Cicero who can inspire our nation into action – is the problem itself for it is a phantasm that too often has become a substitute for deeds.

The next time the president is in political trouble, and he has nothing to offer but damage-control dribble, then perhaps he shouldn’t say anything at all. Let the pundits and bloggers chatter, but lie low and just get down to work, for goodness sake. Sometimes, a measure of humility, in spite of popular expectations for presidents to speechify and to perform, can help a president ride out of a political quandary. Let the media narrative run. Political suicide? Perhaps, but why not give it a shot. It’s not as if talking and gesturing worked.

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