People who follow the news and politics closely come to a Presidential Oval Office speech with a list of expectations: policy aims, specific targets, forceful rhetoric, political positioning, expressions of leadership, definitions of problems, proposals of solutions, framing of issues and concrete calls to action. For the broad audience, a Presidential TV speech needs to answer the question: Why are you interrupting our shows? Or, put less cynically: what is the problem that requires this extraordinary attention at this point in time, and what’s your plan?
Last night, some of the harshest critics of Barack Obama’s speech on the BP oil disaster were some TV personalities who have been most in his corner, including Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow at MSNBC (not that conservatives liked it any better, of course), while pundit support of the speech seemed qualified at best. I suspect that the speech may have played better among the general audience than the media commentators, though I have absolutely no concrete evidence for that—just the general suspicion that if there’s something close to consensus among the media on anything, then it is probably wrong.
That said, there were factors working against Obama’s speech last night. The first was the format. It was his first speech from the Oval Office, and there’s a reason for that. The setting may have lent the speech a greater air of seriousness and command, but it’s not the type of environment in which he does best as a speaker—he works much better at a podium, preferably with an audience to respond and to play off of.
The other issue was a speech text that—its politics and specific proposals, or lack thereof, aside—couldn’t settle on a metaphor or rhetorical approach with which to frame the crisis. On the one hand, it was a war: here was a “battle plan” that we needed to lift a “siege.” But it was also a systemic issue, both involving a failure of companies and bureaucracy and our dependence on fossil fuels. But then again, it was also a catastrophe, which Obama described in terms that often seemed more as if he were talking about an earthquake than a failure of man. At the end of the speech, when he intoned, “Tonight, we pray for that courage,” it was almost as though he had accidentally broken out his asteroid-hurtling-toward-the-Earth speech.
Now, it’s very possible that each one of these ways of seeing the crisis is exactly correct: it is a short-term security issue that requires a war-like response and a long-term issue of our way of life and a calamity that we have only limited means of actually stopping. Still, one of the purposes of a Presidential speech is to link these disparate, but very related, issues with an overarching message and metaphor that persuades the audience that it is, in fact, all the same problem.
It may be that the simple fact of the speech—a restrained address from the inner sanctum of the Presidency—was enough for non-politically-fixated viewers. The question is whether they were satisfied with the broadly outlined solutions that Obama suggested and accept the solutions that he’s powerless to provide (i.e., immediately stopping the oil flow), and whether they were inspired by Obama’s spiritual closing, that “we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day”—or if they were rather hoping that the President might actually be that hand.