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 recent weeks, some political commentators have observed that Senator Barack Obama is all talk, but no substance. Where his supporters see an orator of the highest order, his detractors see only a smooth talker.
Flash back to the 1980s, and we had the same bifurcated response to Ronald Reagan. Whereas some saw profundity and deep meaning in his speeches, Reagan’s detractors heard only vacuous platitudes. Indeed, Reagan’s supporters even used the same words as some liberals do today to describe Obama’s “soaring oratory.” How did Reagan score with the Reagan Democrats? By being all things to all people. The Obamacans in this year’s elections are being swayed by a parallel strategy. Talk a lot, but mean nothing.
Consider Obama’s response this week in Georgia when he addressed charges that he had been “flip flopping” between his positions : “I’m not just somebody who is talking about government as the solution to everything. I also believe in personal responsibility. I also believe in faith.” the Senator sagely declared.
But who doesn’t believe in faith? Such rhetoric misses the point, ending rather than initiating debate – a strategy consummately deployed by President Bush in selling “Operation Iraqi Freedom” by exploiting our universal and creedal belief in liberty. The question is how we should balance our respect for the identity and autonomy of religious charities with our belief in the separation of church and state. And the question is whether freedom in Iraq can and should be bought with the sacrifice of our freedoms at home and the suspension of some of our constitutional principles. By design, Obama’s and Bush’s words elided these difficult, but pressing questions.
“I also believe in personal responsibility” are also coded words Obama’s speechwriters designed to woo conservative audiences without explicitly repudiating the liberal point of view that governmental programs are the other side of the rhetorical equation that ought to have been addressed. Reverend Jesse Jackson was understandingly aggravated. Yet while Jackson has apologized for his crude verbal gaffe, we have yet to take Obama to task for his rhetorical sleight of hand because this is what we have come to expect from political candidates seeking the highest office of the land.
We are not going to face the complex problems of our time if our would-be leaders continue to take the rhetorical path of least resistance, to buy our assent without any content. To say nothing even when one talks a lot is to fulfill the rhetorical formula for, literally, empty promises. There were times in this election season when Obama rose above the anti-intellectual fray, just like there were times when Ronald Reagan and George Bush used the bully pulpit to educate rather than to merely seduce the American people. This year, when conservatives see in a liberal political candidate the same rhetorical flaws as what liberals saw in Reagan and George Bush, perhaps we will come closer to recognizing a systemic flaw in our political system, and it is the Anti-intellectual Presidency.