I stopped listening to the speeches of George W. Bush because I hated listening to their huge helpings of arrogance and braggadocio. I long ago stopped listening to president Obama’s speeches but for different reasons, because his speeches seemed to be an exercise in preening self-aggrandizement masked as humility and thoughtfulness. It seemed like a waste of time to listen to them unless you enjoy listening to good speeches for their own sake, to see how to deliver a well-crafted speech effectively, while ignoring the content. He undoubtedly has good speechwriters and does justice to their efforts so I would recommend listening to him for anyone seeking to become a good public speaker.
But his speeches are a waste of time in terms of actual policies. He simply does not deliver. Glenn Greenwald examines his latest speech that supposedly signaled a new direction in the so-called War on Terror, and comes to pretty much the same conclusions that I do.
The hallmark of a skilled politician is the ability to speak to a group of people holding widely disparate views, and have all of them walk away believing they heard what they wanted to hear. Other than Bill Clinton, I’ve personally never seen a politician even in the same league as Barack Obama when it comes to that ability. His most consequential speeches are shaped by their simultaneous affirmation of conflicting values and even antithetical beliefs, allowing listeners with irreconcilable positions to conclude that Obama agrees with them.
But it signals nothing about what he actually will do. I’m genuinely amazed that there are still smart people who treat these speeches as though they do. As Esquire’s Tom Junod put it after the speech: “if the Lethal Presidency reminds us of anything, it’s that we should be a long way from judging this president on his rhetoric or his portrayal of himself as a moral actor.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf added that Obama “has a long record of broken promises and misleading rhetoric on civil liberties, and it would be naive to assume that he’ll follow through on everything he said on Thursday.”
In lieu of substance, the speech was heavy on feel-good rhetoric, mostly designed to signal that unlike the mean and simplistic George Bush – who presumably pursued these policies thoughtlessly and simplistically – Obama experiences inner turmoil and deep moral and intellectual conflict as he embraces them. “For me, and those in my chain of command, those [civilian] deaths will haunt us as long as we live,” the president claimed. He added that drones and other new weapons technologies “raise profound questions — about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under US and international law; about accountability and morality.”
This “he-struggles-so-very-much” conceit is one Obama officials have been pushing for awhile, as when they anonymous boasted to the New York Times about Obama’s deep personal involvement in choosing the targets of his “kill list”, something he insists upon because he is “a student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas” and wants to ensure compliance with those lofty principles.
Ultimately, one can persuasively highlight passages in Obama’s speech that support any or all of these perspectives. That’s what makes it such a classic Obama speech. And that’s the point: his speech had something for everyone, which is another way of saying that it offered nothing definitive or even reliable about future actions. No matter how good it made some eager-to-believe progressives feel, it’s impossible rationally to assess Obama’s future posture regarding the war on terror, secrecy and civil liberties expect by his actions. Until one sees actual changes in behavior and substance on those issues, cheering for those changes as though they already occurred or are guaranteed is the height of self-delusion.
Yes, that about sums it up.