The Washington Post

President Obama gives a lot of speeches, but not from the Oval Office

Departing President Ronald Reagan shortly after he delivered his farewell address to the nation from the Oval Office in the White House in Jan. 12, 1989. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Did you catch President Obama’s Oval Office speech on Aug. 31, 2010, announcing the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq? No?  Too bad.

It was an historic speech. Not just because of the subject matter — telling some 29.2 million viewers there would be no more U.S. combat operations in that country — but also because it might have been the last one he’s going to give from behind his office desk. (Though the White House isn’t ruling out that option.)

Obama gave only two televised ovals in his first term. The first was a somewhat ponderous 17-minute yawn on June 15, 2010, explaining how he was indeed on top of things on the BP Gulf oil spill. Two months later, he gave a much stronger speech about Iraq.

But he looked uncomfortable in that setting, just sitting and looking into a camera —  and we’re told that he was.

So in the last four years, Obama has abandoned that format, preferring instead to make important speeches outside Washington (at sites related to his message) or standing at a podium in the East Room after a stroll on a red carpet through the Cross Hall or outdoors, behind the White House on the South Lawn after a walk down a narrow sidewalk.

Gone is the gravitas of speaking from the Oval Office. While reporters and pols may recognize the East Room  or the South Lawn of the White House, those venues are barely, if at all, recognizable to most viewers —  let alone particularly significant to them. The Oval Office evokes leadership, the ultimate power symbol of the presidency.

And it’s not as if there haven’t been occasions when Obama had ample reason to use that setting, such as after the killing of Osama bin Laden or the tragic killing of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., or more recently events in Ukraine and Gaza.

Presidents surely have overused the Oval Office backdrop. Richard Nixon used it some two-dozen times in his 6 1/2 years in office, including his resignation speech, yet mostly to talk about Vietnam. Ronald Reagan used it the most, 34 times, according to a count by the American Presidency Project at the University of California – Santa Barbara,  including speeches about the Venice Economic Summit, arms control and the deficit.

President Carter used it 10 times, most famously in 1979 to talk about the energy crisis, droning on about how we should use car pools, take public transportation, “park your car one extra day per week,” “obey the speed limit” and “lower your thermostats.”

It’s hard to imagine President Kennedy discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis in another setting or President Bush talking about the 9/11 attacks from outside the Oval. (Bush, by the way, only spoke from that office six times. Apparently he too wasn’t so comfortable speaking from there and he used the East Room and other venues as well.)

If Obama doesn’t speak from the Oval again, he will have used it fewer times than any president since Harry S. Truman, who, in 1947, gave the first televised address from that office  — on conserving food in order to aid war-torn Europe.


Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.

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