There are several reasons that Obama has shied away from this format, all of which have some merit. But to each, I say this: Ya got a better idea?
Let's start with the fact that the president hasn't exactly shined in previous Ovals. In his first, which followed the BP oil spill, Obama looked stiff and uncomfortable.
He gave it another go a couple months later, announcing the end of combat operations in Iraq, but he still appeared out of his element.
Obama hasn’t tried it again since, opting instead to use other White House venues such as the Rose Garden or the East Room, as he did on the night in 2011 when U.S. Navy SEALs took out Osama bin Laden.
Even Obama’s critics acknowledge that he is a naturally gifted orator. But he excels when he can move around a little, talk with his hands, feed off the energy of a crowd or banter with an interviewer one-on-one. A chair, a desk and an unresponsive camera lens don’t allow him to make the most of his skill set.
There is no substitute, however, for the gravitas of the Oval Office. The Rose Garden and the East Room say, “This is a really nice place in that really nice house I live in.” The Oval says, “This is where I get [expletive] done.” It’s where George W. Bush addressed the nation on 9/11, where Ronald Reagan spoke on the day the Challenger exploded, and where John F. Kennedy explained the Cuban missile crisis. Sometimes the magnitude of the moment calls for the Oval, even if that’s not where a president does his best rhetorical work.
We got some fascinating insight into how Obama and his aides view Oval Office addresses a couple years ago when Jon Favreau, the president’s former speechwriter, got into a spirited Twitter exchange with Politico’s Glenn Thrush.
Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s senior communications adviser at the time, called the back and forth between Thrush and Favreau “an argument from the ’80s.”
There is no doubt that the prime-time presidential address doesn’t grab the country’s collective attention like it used to. A 2006 study by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government documented steady declines in viewership since the late 1960s. Obama has experienced the trend firsthand in his State of the Union speeches. His first, in 2009, drew 52.4 million viewers, and each one since has attracted a smaller audience than the one before; this year, 31.7 million people tuned in.
In a not-unrelated development, television networks are increasingly reluctant to just hand over prime-time air. When the White House asked the four major networks to carry a prime-time immigration speech around this time last year, the answer was, as we put it here at The Fix, “little more than a ‘Mmm, no thanks.’”
But what’s the alternative? Let’s assume that Obama’s Oval on Sunday registers something in the neighborhood of his first two — about 30 million viewers. That might not be as many as he’d like, but how else can he reach 30 million people at once?
Obama has 72 million Twitter followers on two accounts (@BarackObama and @POTUS), but he can’t really lay out the plan for combating terrorism in 140 characters. I mean, his press secretary needed 731 characters just to say the speech was happening.
On Sunday, December 6th at 8:00PM EST, President Obama will address the nation from the Oval Office about the steps our government is taking to fulfill his highest priority: keeping the American people safe. The President will provide an update on the ongoing investigation into the tragic attack in San Bernardino. The President will also discuss the broader threat of terrorism, including the nature of the threat, how it has evolved, and how we will defeat it. He will reiterate his firm conviction that ISIL will be destroyed and that the United States must draw upon our values — our unwavering commitment to justice, equality and freedom to prevail over terrorist groups that use violence to advance a destructive ideology.
He could try something trendier than broadcast television. Periscope, maybe? Even if every Periscope user in the world tuned in (the popular live webcasting service hit 10 million in August), the audience wouldn’t even come close.
Remember when that Austrian guy smashed live-streaming records with his 24-mile free fall from space? The YouTube record he set was 8.3 million simultaneous viewers.
This may be the digital age, and the idea of the whole country gathering around the TV to watch the president speak from the Oval might seem more like a distant memory than a present reality. It’s not even Obama’s best forum for communication, anyway.
But, in moments like this, it’s still the best option.