New York Times reporter Peter Baker questioned whether President Obama’s soaring rhetoric ("the most gifted orator of his generation") was still getting through in his Sunday Week in Review piece "The Words That Once Soared," and even let Obama aides suggest the president's Cairo speech "was responsible for Iranians taking to the streets of Tehran to protest a disputed election."
As the most gifted orator of his generation, President Obama finds speechmaking perhaps his most potent political tool. It propelled him to national prominence in 2004 and to the White House in 2008. And whenever he needs to calm economic fears or revive stalled health care legislation, he takes to the lectern.
The Times finds the Democratic party to be a veritable symposium of “gifted orators.” Obama’s already been called that three times before in the Times, the first instance coming all the way back on March 19, 2006 in a story by Anne Kornblut, before he was even running for president.
Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick joined Obama as a “fellow gifted orator” in a March 27, 2008 story by Abby Goodnough.
In a March 1, 2009 Times magazine story, Matt Bai said that unlike conservative Republican Newt Gingrich, Obama was a “gifted orator.”
In fact, a Nexis search and a nytimes.com search suggest that no Republican has earned the Times’s “gifted orator” appellation, not even Ronald Reagan, although the archives get fuzzier pre-1981.
Going back a little, President Bill Clinton was a “gifted orator” in October 1994, less than a month before he orated his party out of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
It’s no surprise that former New York governor and perpetual Democratic presidential teaser Mario Cuomo was called a “gifted orator” in May 1992.
It may come as more of a surprise that screaming Howard Dean was considered a “gifted orator” in a June 2003 story, again by Matt Bai.
Moving on: Baker wondered if Obama had lost his magic touch and forwarded a familiar comforting argument: That the Democrats who lost last week “had fatal flaws of their own.” (Which somehow didn’t stop the Times editorial page from endorsing the fatally flawed Democratic NJ Gov. Jon Corzine anyway.)
But the limits of rhetoric were on display last week when the president could not rescue two foundering candidates in governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia. Has Mr. Obama lost his oratorical touch? Is the magic finally beginning to fade? Does the White House rely too heavily on his skills on the stump to advance his priorities?
It may be too soon to reach such conclusions. The Democrats who lost last week, after all, had fatal flaws all their own. But the results do suggest that Mr. Obama’s addresses these days may not resonate quite the way they did. Speeches that once set pulses racing now feel more familiar. And if that remains the case heading into next year, it could make it more difficult for the Democrats’ own Great Communicator to promote his program and carry along allies in crucial midterm elections.
Baker even toyed with the idea that Obama’s speechmaking was responsible for the popular uprising in Iran after dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a heavily corrupted election.
Unlike Mr. Bush, who recognized his limitations as a public speaker, Mr. Obama and his team have enormous faith in his capacity for communicating with the American people. When he was considering a bailout for the auto industry and advisers warned of a popular backlash, he expressed confidence that he could explain it to the public. After Mr. Obama gave his speech in Cairo reaching out to the Muslim world, some aides argued that the address itself was responsible for Iranians taking to the streets of Tehran to protest a disputed election.
Baker let Obama aides advance that self-serving idea, but left out the inconvenient truth that the administration was mostly silent as the election was stolen, its support for the opposition was muted and reluctant at best. Both the European Union and Britain took a tougher line on the Iranian regime than did Obama, as the Times itself reported in June 2009.