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Obama's First 100 Days

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Communicator in Chief Has a Tone for Every Situation

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The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis analyzes President Obama's tone in his speeches, press conferences and town hall meetings that have taken place in his first 100 days. Video by Emily Kotecki/washingtonpost.com

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

From the start, the orator who had reached the White House based in no small part on his eloquence made it clear that he would not necessarily be delivering the same soaring stuff as he did in his campaign.

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"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility," Barack Obama said in a conspicuously earthbound inaugural address. "A recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties . . . that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."

But President Obama's turn of the dial did not mean he would relinquish the powers of rhetoric. Far from it. His first 100 days have been marked by the omnipresence of Obama the communicator -- in speeches, news conferences, stump appearances, weekly YouTube addresses and even late-night TV.

Most notable about all the words spoken is the variability of their tone, the way in which Obama has modulated his pitch for different moments. Underlying these shifts have been the defining tensions of the first 100 days -- how to make the case for action on the economy without being too pessimistic, how to be tough without being too partisan, how to share outrage about Wall Street without being inflammatory.

In his first weeks in office, Obama was trying to sound above the fray, urging bipartisan action on the big economic stimulus package. "I will continue working with both parties so that the strongest possible bill gets to my desk," he said in a Jan. 31 YouTube address. "With the stakes so high, we simply cannot afford the same old gridlock and partisan posturing in Washington."

But after zero House Republicans voted for the measure, he struck a feistier tone at a House Democratic retreat. "Then you get the argument, 'Well, this is not a stimulus bill, it's a spending bill,' " he said, smiling ironically and raising his hands in chiding, Italian-uncle fashion. "What do you think a stimulus is? That's the whole point!"

He carried a similarly spirited tone onto the road, as he fled Washington for town hall meetings that echoed the campaign. In Elkhart, Ind., he sympathized with those hurt by the recession -- "young people who put that college acceptance back in the envelope because they just can't afford it" -- and derided the opposition, pointing his finger for emphasis: "We can't posture and bicker and resort to the same failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place. That was what this election was all about!"

To goad action, Obama spoke in dark tones about the economy -- too dark, some said. "If you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of," he said in his first presidential news conference, where his answers were in-depth and almost professorial in nature. "This is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill recession. We are going through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression."

Two weeks later, he shifted to a more optimistic tone in his joint address to Congress. "We are not quitters," he said. "Even in the most trying times, amid the most difficult circumstances, there is a generosity, a resilience, a decency, and a determination that perseveres."

Obama carried the buoyant tone further in his March appearances on "60 Minutes" and "The Tonight Show." He bantered with Jay Leno about life in the bubble, leaning in comfortably on the couch, but his levity also produced an unfortunate quip about the Special Olympics.

And by then, the ground had shifted to the point where severity was again called for: Cable news was in an uproar over the American International Group bonuses, and Obama decided he needed to share the anger. "How do they justify this outrage to taxpayers?" he said at the White House on March 16. A week later, amid worries that the flames were getting out of control, he offered a more judicious tone in his second news conference: "The rest of us can't afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit."

His trip to Europe demanded its own nuance -- putting on a friendlier face to the world without overdoing it. "There's been times where America's shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive," he said in Strasbourg, France. "But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times that Europe chooses to blame America for much of what's bad."

Back in the States, he delivered a speech at Georgetown University on April 14 that summed up his emerging agenda. Much had happened since the inauguration, but the address carried the same sober tone as he had that day -- a tone that appears likely to be the dominant one amid an array of voices that he will rely on moving forward. "We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand," he said. "We must build our house upon a rock."


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