The secret of Obama’s success

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.


  1. David Marjanović says

    he is “a student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas”

    If that’s true, it’s horrible.

  2. MNb says

    As a utalitarian I am hardly interested in speeches. Last time must be 25 years ago or something – I never listened to a Clinton speech either.
    Show me actual policies and concrete results instead. Obama could have done worse but also could have done better. Or not, given the American political system.

  3. smrnda says

    I notice that most politicians keep their speeches incredibly vague so that nothing of substance is ever really said, so that nothing is really ever promised. If a politician pledges to ‘do something to ensure that upward mobility remains a reality in the United States’ that’s a good topic header, but without the details it’s just hot air. If a politician says that they will ‘show restraint’ in military matters, it’s just a way of making you think they showed restraint since they always *could* have dropped more bombs.

    It seems a lot of Obama rhetoric is just to make us think that he’s thinking hard about the ‘tough questions,’ but without any policies to show us what conclusions he’s reached and what policies will be implemented, it’s just a diversionary tactic. It reminds me of the way people use buzzwords on resumes and CVs more than anything else.

  4. slc1 says

    I really get a kick out of folks like Prof. Singham and Ed Brayton who consider Glenn Greenwald the cat’s meow. It seems that several years ago, ole Glenn held diametrically opposing views. So which Greenwald are we supposed to cite, the Greenwald of 2005 or the Greenwald of today. If he was wrong in 2005, who’s to say he’s actually not wrong now?

  5. 2up2down2furious says

    Oh noez, Greenwald’s views have changed over time! Indeed, Greenwald has admitted as much on numerous occasions: he initially had some common ground with neo-conservatives, but that common ground lessened over time.

    If he was wrong in 2005, how can we know that his current work is mostly right? By READING HIS ARTICLES. I’ve never seen Singham or Brayton argue that we should accept Greenwald’s arguments ex cathedra because their author is infallible; rather, I think the implication is that we should take his positions seriously because they’re good positions. The article is you posted is hilarious, by the way. I love when hardcore Zionists call Mondoweiss, which was founded by Jews and whose writers are mostly Jewish, a bastion of evil anti-Semitism.

  6. other dave says

    I thiink it was an Isaac Asimov story that spoke of a galactic senator coming to a planet to speak, and almost everyone on the planet was wowed by the galactic senator until the logicians came by and said they had analyzed the speech and every statement was precisely countered by other statements concluding the entire speech amounted to precisely nothing.

  7. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Personally, I care a lot more about what President Obama says than what Glen Greenwald says. Greenwald over the years has written many good articles, and is an alert, informative, and astute observer of politics and possible or actual infringements on civil liberties.

    But it also seems to me he suffers a bit from Obama Derangement Syndrome, and lately is prone to go over the edge. He recently jumped through hoops to try to argue that the butcher who sliced up Drummer Rigby on a London street was not committing an act of Islamic terror. If the prospect of madmen randomly eviscerating people on the streets isn’t a terrifying one, I don’t know what is.

    Greenwald attempted elaborately to explain his position, but he wasn’t convincing to me, and I have to wonder exactly what his underlying and unspoken emotional motivations are.

    Surely the idea if a “kill list” is terrible. Especially if you believe it o be the first step on a slippery slope to a full on domestic campaign of terror by the president against his political enemies. I don’t think that is what it is though.

    Compare the “kill list”, or in other words, the laboriously compiled and thoroughly vetted set of primary enemy targets who pose a real threat to the US and its citizens, to the full scale invasion of a country like Iraq. Does the idea of these targeted killings come close to rising to level of horror of such a military invasion, in a practical sense?

    Greenwald’s obsession with this seems to me like wringing his hands because the glass is 4% empty, while ignoring a wide range of important factors. I’ve seen a lot if pointed and articulate criticism of Obama, and the US generally, from Greenwald, and I can always go through it nodding my head and saying, yeah he’s right. But then if you back away a bit, you realize he isn’t really proposing practical workable alternative solutions to some real problems. One has to wonder to what extent and how quickly Greenwald would have to change his tune were he suddenly placed in the position of real responsibility that Presudent Obama occupies.

  8. atheist says

    Of course Greenwald is 100% right on this, Obama’s speeches often have no connection to his policies. I do sometimes feel that in a nation like the USA, you can’t blame politicians for making meaningless speeches, because the population is so ready to jump on them for the most petty, meaningless things. Witness the bullshit anger over the Benghazi attack, for instance. And so making meaningless speeches becomes a defensive technique. Also, I appreciate Stephen Walt’s counter to this argument: doing nothing is actually a better policy than anything else Washington discusses. But ultimately, if politics can offer anything, it has to be actual policies. And on “The War On Terror”, Obama has tended to promise much and deliver little if anything.

  9. slc1 says

    Of course you think that Greenwald’s current arguments are good positions because you agree with them. Greenwald’s arguments of 2005 were obviously bad because you don’t agree with them.

    Mondoweiss was founded by self hating Jews who believe that the State of Israel is the source of all evil in the world and which is the left wing equivalent of Stormfront, with whom it shares many a common view. According to them, the Government is Israel is worse then the governments of Iran and Syria. Just like self hating Jew Noam Chomsky who pals around with Holocaust deniers

    Incidentally, it should be pointed out that Greenwald is an out of the closet gay man who lives with his putative husband in Brazil and who, if he lived or visited any Arab country or Iran would be subject to capital punishment. Not so in Israel.

  10. Redux says

    Glenn Greenwald did NOT argue that the attackers in London aren’t terrorists. He argued that there’s no meaningful definition of ‘terrorism’ as used in the media, because it isn’t used consistently. There are acts that *should* fall under any sensible definition of terrorism, but aren’t labelled as such, simply because the perpetrators aren’t Muslim. Moreover, any attempt at defining ‘terrorism’ usually stipulates that civilians be targeted, not soldiers of a nation at war. England has spent the last decade arguing that it IS at war, and that the whole world is a battlefield, yet surprisingly few people seem to understand what that actually means.

    You say that the ‘kill list’ is laboriously compiled and thoroughly vetted – how do you know that, given that virtually everything about it is kept secret? You’re simply assuming that it is, even though for some of the individuals we’ve been given precisely ZERO reason to think that they were a threat. I’m speaking specifically of Anwar al-Awlaki and, even more disturbingly, his young son, who the government hasn’t even bothered to claim was guilty of anything, despite his being obviously assassinated. Keep in mind that there’s been no evidence put forward that Anwar al-Awlaki did anything that isn’t constitutionally-protected free speech.

    Finally, your claim that Glenn hasn’t proposed any alternatives is laughable: he frequently says that if you stop attacking people, those people will stop attacking you. Stop going to war to plunder their oil; it really is as simple as that.

  11. 2up2down2furious says

    It’s hard to take the “self-hating Jew” bromide seriously. I’m a white person in the US South who has regularly hears (mostly elderly, thank goodness) white people talk about the “race-traitors” and “n****r-lovers” who helped those big, bad civil rights activists and ruined the “southern way of life.” Referring to Jews who take a stand for Palestine as “self-hating” serves a similar function– you get to dismiss serious political arguments by impugning the moral legitimacy, or even sanity, those holding them. Pathologizing dissenters is a common tactic on both the left and the right, and it’s equally puerile on either side.

    In terms of Chomsky “palling around with holocaust deniers”, that’s very deceptive. Chomsky once wrote one essay that defended the academic freedom and freedom of speech of a French professor who was indeed an anti-Semitic holocaust denier who was going to lose his job as a result of his views. Chomsky’s idea of academic freedom is much more encompassing than my own, and he defended the right of the professor to say things that he himself found to be ridiculous and repugnant. Saying that this makes Chomsky guilty by association to holocaust deniers is like saying that the ACLU is a pro-Klan organization for defending the freedom of speech of white supremacists, which they’ve done from time to time.

    Lastly, let’s get to the pinkwashing. Every single Palestinian LGBTQ organization I’m aware of, including Al Qaws, cites the occupation as a major obstacle to organizing. And while Greenwald’s gay relationship might not be accepted in most Arab countries, his inter-religious relationship would not be accepted in Israel. Greenwald is a Jew and I’m pretty sure his partner is a Brazilian non-Jew; because Israel only has religious marriage and not civil marriage, Jews are not allowed to marry non-Jews. This is pre-Loving v. Virginia territory here. But ultimately, why should a decent record in one arena (gay rights) allow for apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and a police state for another group (Palestinians)?

    In conclusion, you either have no idea what you’re talking about, or are blinded by feelings of ethno-nationalism that you can’t construct even a halfway decent argument.

  12. slc1 says

    Jews are not allowed to marry non-Jews

    This is true, at least at the present time although the new secular government is considering recognizing civil marriages. However, civil marriages performed in other countries are recognized in Israel via treaty. In fact, couples wishing to be married in a civil ceremony currently travel to Cyprus, which marriages are recognized in Israel. As an example, the marriage of former US Representative Anthony Weiner, a Jew and Huma Abedin, a Muslim is recognized in Israel.

    As for the treatment of gays and lesbians, such persons are subject to the death penalty in most of the Muslim world. As a matter of fact, there are a number of gay Muslims and Christians from the Gaza Strip who are living illegally in Israel, hidden by the gay/lesbian organizations there. They would be killed if they remained in the Gaza Strip and were outed. The notion that the occupation is responsible for the treatment of gays and lesbians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is laughable. Their position would not improve in the slightest if Messrs Haniyeh, Netanyahu, and Abbas signed a peace treaty tomorrow morning.

  13. slc1 says

    One has to wonder to what extent and how quickly Greenwald would have to change his tune were he suddenly placed in the position of real responsibility that Presudent Obama occupies.

    His first order of business would be to throw Israel under the bus.

  14. atheist says

    Calling folks “Self-Hating” is a strange way to attack their arguments. First of all, how do you know what a person actually feels about themselves? Are you their therapist? And then suppose that the founders of Mondoweiss did actually hate themselves — in what way would this invalidate their arguments?

  15. 2up2down2furious says

    Please bone up on your reading comprehension. Sometimes even people who normally read well have difficulty reading about topics about which they’re passionate. I never said that Israeli apartheid is the cause of homophobia in the occupied territories; instead I said that Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank along with its apartheid policies for Palestinian Arab (second-class) citizens are an obstacle to organizing for LGBTQ rights. I stand by that statement, and I’ll be happy to elaborate on it.

    Human rights are almost never given from above; instead they are fought for and won from below. And there are Palestinian LGBTQ people who are fighting against Israeli apartheid and colonialism AND homophobia in their own communities. Historically, mobility is absolutely crucial to building strong, proud, fighting communities of LGBTQ people– think about how in the US, isolated gay people from small towns aggregated in places like San Francisco, the Northwest, Boys Town in Chicago, etc., and how people in different cities met up and organized over time. Palestinian LGBTQ people cannot easily do this. Israeli’s segregated highways, checkpoints, and imposed poverty make it nearly impossible for a gay or lesbian Palestinian in a more conservative part of Gaza to meet up with LGBT people in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Haifa, or even Hebron (which, despite its conservative reputation, does have out gay people).

    Furthermore, Israel’s occupation and apartheid hurt all Palestinians, gay and straight. The goverment’s home demolitions do not exempt gay people; white phosphorous burn gay skin and well as straight; IDF bullets and bombs kill gay and straight people alike. The right of return is denied to Palestinians of all gender identities and sexual orientations. And despite your claims of Israel beneficently sheltering Palestinian LGBTs, the Israeli government has NEVER accepted an asylum request from a Palestinian on the grounds that they are discriminated against on account of their sexuality.

    Instead of allowing Israel and its harebrained myrmidons to speak for Palestinian LGBTQ people, why not let Palestinian queers speak for themselves? While I doubt I’ll convince you, I’d encourage anyone else interested in the issue to use this website as a starting point:

  16. Jeffrey Johnson says

    This is an age old discussion about the exact definition of terrorism, and Greenwald didn’t originate it. He distinctly avoided calling it terrorism and criticized others who did. Regardless if whether we have a clear and uniform definition of terrorism, I can’t see why he had trouble using the term with this particular attack.

    How much oil did we plunder? As far as I can tell Iraq owns its oil and benefits from the revenues.

    If you think there was zero reason to see Al Awlaki as a threat, you simply weren’t paying attention. He had direct involvement in a couple of bombing plots, and he indirectly inspired several attacks in the US. He openly preached war against the US, the murder of Americans, and was making every effort to encourage American Muslims to launch attacks here at home. Ignoring him and doing nothing was not a reasonable option.

    If Awlaki weren’t an American nobody would be making a big deal about his death. That says two things: everyone who thinks the Awlaki death was a particularly important stand-out event cares relatively little about the deaths of non-Americans, and they are somehow leaping to the conclusion that this represents a step toward some kind of domestic reign of terror by the White Houses against its political enemies. It’s pure hysterical fantasy, a fallacious slippery slope argument.

    There are far more Americans gunned down by police with no more due process than Awlaki had. This happens often because police panic, but many times it is because someone is armed and endangering innocent people. A police officer makes the decision that the criminal can not safely be arrested without endangering the lives of officers and/or innocent bystanders. In such situations a decision is made that the criminal has sacrificed his rights and is fair game. This is exactly like what happened to Awlaki. Every death is sad, but I see no reason to be outraged or hysterical over the Awlaki case. There are many more innocent people gunned down by police in our cities, yet for some reason people find it far more fashionable, and they get far more smug satisfaction, by going on and on about Awlaki.

    If Glen thinks that inaction and passivity is the solution, he’s far more naive than I ever thought. Like I said, if he ever found himself in an actual position of responsibility, with the need to respond to daily intelligence briefings and make decisions that effect the safety and security of Americans, he wouldn’t have the luxury of such admirable and idealistic pacifism and passivity.

  17. poxyhowzes says

    An important point is being missed here, and that is the role of Presidential (and other) speeches in convincing folks that they have made the right choice. For example, many Buick ads back in the day were designed to convince the OWNERS of Buicks that they had bought the best of all possible cars.

    Similarly, much of Obama’s speechifying early in the administration was to keep LGBTQs “on board,” convinced that Obama was always and still was “on their side,” even while the administration actually did nothing on such things as DOMA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And LGBTQ is only one area where the speeches were (are?) designed more to “reassure” supporters than to actually change policy.

    It really is part of leadership in a democracy — the constant reminders to the populace that “you’ve chosen correctly.”


  18. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Here is a further thought on what bothers me about the kind of criticism Greenwald offers of our President and US foreign policy: it’s too easy.

    It is extremely easy to formulate ideas and string together words to criticize anyone, anywhere, anytime. Why is this so? Because reality is hard and thought and words are cheap. It’s a kind of Gish Gallop to lay out criticisms against the actions of leaders in roles of responsibility, with the pretense that the discussion is really about what ought to be done, and what should have been done. It is comparatively effortless to lay out a hundred criticisms, and a hundred policy recommendations, while the target of these critiques can never meet them, never live up to them, because for every set of critiques there are thousands of others, and the nature of reality is hard and unyielding compared to the soft pliancy of ideas and words.

    What citizen in a complex pluralistic democratic society can ever expect any leader or any government to meet all of his or her expectaions? The answer is no citizen can expect this. When we think about our wishes, our ideas of what would be best, what would be proper and appropriate, what we think is the right solution to every problem, we must consider that we are members of a large group of people, and that large numbers of them think differently than we do. And in addition to that, when testing our ideas against reality, we need to take into account the real obstacles to action, the complexity and unpredictability, the determined opposition, the limits of Constitutional power, the constraints of time and materials.

    Yes, of course we can pick out particular issues and self-righteously congratulate ourselves on being so much wiser and correct than the fool in the White House. This is easy enough for any fool to accomplish. But unless we take into account the entire picture, the whole set of demands and expectations, the conflicting priorities and contradictory imperatives, the extraordinary level of detail that must be mastered before real progress can confidently proceed, we can’t begin to honestly assess the man, the job he has done, and how that agrees or disagrees with our expectations. Any honest consideration of these matters must lead one to conclude that we are fortunate in such a democracy if our leadership can fulfill our dreams, meet our demands, or live up to our expectations even 40% of the time.

    So is the correct way to view the President’s speech to take it as a literal set of commitments and promises that he can fulfill by exercising his will alone, and that we should bank on our expectations that this is what is being said? Of course not. This would be hopelessly naive, and yet the point of Greenwald’s critique seems to be an expression of dissapointment of such a childish and naive expectation.

    The speech is rather a statement of direction, a statement of a range of priorities and values that serve as a guideline, a navigational aid, an articulation of some principles that reveal something about what the President thinks is important, and how he wants to see the American people adjust their thinking and their expectations. It is a sign to us of the kinds of things the President sees as possibilities, as desireable, as worthy of our collective efforts. Any specific goal or target mentioned in such a context is not to be taken as a contract, a promise, a deal breaker if the speaker falls short. Anyone who keeps their evaluation and analysis of political matters in the lofty realm of Platonic ideals is bound to always be disappointed by any leader, at any time, under any circumstances. And perhaps you can delight in verbosely expressing that anger and frustration that comes from that disappointment. It’s not hard to do at all.

    But disappointment is made from expectations, and anyone who wants to calibrate their expectations to reality has to make more of an effort to appreciate the chaotic nature of reality, of human society, of a massively complex system of competing interests vying for power and control. Nobody can realistically expect that any government or leader is going to fulfill your ideals more than at best 50 to 60% of the time, or to an extent greater than 50 or 60% of how you visualize perfection. By perfection I don’t really mean some unimaginable ideal, but rather the 100% fulfillment of a clearly articulated set of goals and milestones that represents any individuals best conception of what success in each policy area would look like. Even this mundane set of expectations is way too much to ever be met.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *