Mark Shields: Obama’s speech defects

Mark Shields

As a young Illinois state senator at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he delivered a memorable keynote address, which, almost overnight, vaulted him into presidential consideration. Even his most unforgiving critics acknowledge Barack Obama’s oratorical gifts. For many, he is to speechmaking what Frank Sinatra was to crooning or Ted Williams was to hitting. I would argue the exact opposite, that the persistently recurring themes in Obama’s speeches inflict unintended damage on the Democratic Party he leads.

Deny my premise, but please hear me out. One major difference between America’s two major political parties is that most Democrats believe that government can be — and has been — both the engine of economic growth and the national instrument of social justice whereas most Republicans disagree. The conservative humorist P.J. O’Rourke once wrote: “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.”

There is more than a dollop of wisdom in O’Rourke’s line. If you, by your ballot, wanted to register your disapproval of the federal government and Washington, then you could vote for the anti-Washington party, the Republicans.

But as a review of the White House’s own record of his speeches reveals, Obama, now in the seventh year of his presidency, both illogically and unpersuasively insists on running against Washington while failing to make a sustained positive case in defense of government action. Recently, in a Phoenix speech, after referring to U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, who will spend one year on the International Space Station, Obama, still seeking to cast himself as the outsider, said, “I know there’s some folks in Washington who wish I was going to be in space for a year,” later adding that sometimes he thinks “Washington is the capital of cynicism.”

In Kansas and again in Idaho this January, the man who twice won the White House continued to despair about both the “pundits in Washington” and “the politics in Washington.” Last year, in separate California events, the Democratic president spoke of the widespread sense that “what people in Washington care about is their own jobs, their own positions, and their own perks.” He later said, “Folks in Washington, sometimes they’re focused on everything but your concerns.” In New York, he said, “Frankly, the press and Washington, all it does is feed cynicism.” Repeatedly, he asserts that “Washington just doesn’t work” and maybe “will never work.” What did he enjoy in Texas and Colorado? Mostly “just getting out of Washington.”

Missing from the presidential stump speech is any recounting of the singular achievements of the federal government that have made America freer, fairer and more prosperous. How about America’s rebuilding a destroyed Europe after World War II through the Marshall Plan or the “government” universities created by the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, out of which have come the polio vaccine, streptomycin, the first atom smasher and the digital computer? Only through the federal government — not the magic of the free market — could we end racial segregation and officially sanctioned discrimination against racial minorities, women and people with disabilities and remove 98 percent of the lead from the air our children breathe and billions of tons of waste and poisons from the water we drink. Because of the feds, the medicines we take and the food we eat are safe.

The president, by his speech defects, has missed the chance to make the case for the public sector and to replenish our badly depleted national self-confidence by reminding us of our remarkable national successes.

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