Can President Obama talk his way out of political trouble (again)?
President Obama’s decision to deliver a major economic speech in Ohio tomorrow amounts to an attempted campaign reset after almost two weeks of unrelenting bad news for the incumbent and his party.
Thursday’s speech is the second time in the past week (or so) that Obama has tried to change the subject or, at the very least, get the conversation back on more favorable ground for him.
His press conference last Friday — in which he uttered the now famous/infamous line that “the private sector is doing fine” — made things worse not better.
But now Obama is returning to an approach that repeatedly worked for him in 2008: When things get hairy politically speaking, give a big speech.
The simple fact is that when things are going badly, politicians return to what they know — and what they’re best at. And what Obama does best is deliver major speeches that simultaneously address doubts his supporters might have about him while winning over (or at least quieting) his critics — both within the party and outside of it.
Go back to the fall of 2007 when concerns had begun to grow — even among the most ardent Obama supporters — that the then Illinois Senator simply wasn’t moving up fast enough in polling against then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).
Obama went to Iowa for the state party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner and delivered a speech that, quite literally, changed the face of the race in a single night.
Wrote the Post’s Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray of that night:
“Clinton gave a strong speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner late Saturday. But Obama, criticized for occasional lackluster performances, delivered one of his most focused and powerful addresses.”
“In the view of many watching, he emerged as the oratorical winner at the biggest Democratic political event in Iowa before the state’s January caucuses.”
If you don’t remember the speech or haven’t watched it in a while, it’s worth checking out again.
Obama won the Iowa caucuses less than two months later, a victory that catapulted him to the front of the field. Then just as Obama looked like the near-certain nominee, controversial comments by his pastor — Reverend Jeremiah Wright — surfaced, causing a firestorm that Obama and his campaign felt the need to put out through, you guessed it, a major speech.
Delivered at the National Constitution Center in mid-March 2008, the “race speech” — as it came to be known — turned a clear negative (Obama’s ties to Wright) into a positive (Obama as uniquely positioned to heal the long standing racial wounds/divides in the country).
The entire 37-minute race speech is here:
The lesson Obama and his political inner circle learned from those two political near-death experiences? That Obama as orator was when he was at the height of his political powers, and that when in doubt he should return to those rhetorical roots.
Obama himself has acknowledged as much — insisting that knocks against him as a simply a good speech-maker miss the power that words can carry.
During a speech in February 2008 — pushing back against that criticism from the Clinton campaign — Obama responded:
“Don’t tell me words don’t matter. ‘I have a dream’ — just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ — just words. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ – just words. Just speeches.”
It’s not at all surprising then that at a moment when Obama is scuffling as badly as he has at anytime in the past year, his team is turning to a “major” speech to fix what ails him.
The question is whether Obama can conjure that same magic on Thursday or, even if he is able to do so, whether he will be judged differently as president than he was as a candidate.
“When you are a candidate a speech alone can do it,” said one Democratic strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly. “As president you need to take action as well.”
The other complicating factor is whether Obama’s eloquence — as demonstrated in the 2008 campaign — could actually come back to bite him as he leans on it again in 2012.
In a Colorado focus group conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart on Tuesday night, the danger of Obama’s eloquence was apparent. “I got duped,” said one man who voted for Obama in 2008. “I fell under his spell.”
Other more favorably inclined to Obama argued that Thursday’s speech was not meant as a panacea for the incumbent’s current problems but rather a further attempt to frame the election.
“I doubt the President and his team think they can reset things with just one speech,” said Bill Burton, a former Obama White House aide who now runs Priorities USA, a super PAC supportive of the incumbent. “Even though there are twenty weeks until election day, many voters are just now focusing in on the choice they will have. This is an opportunity for the President to talk to those voters about his vision and how it compares to Romney’s.”