But the president is supposed to be great at speeches. Why isn’t it working anymore? One answer is that it never “worked.” The power of the president’s oratory was always exaggerated. It is true that a good speech put him on the map in 2004 and made his rise possible, and true he gave some good speeches in 2008. But people didn’t really vote for him because he said did things like: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” They voted for him in spite of that. They voted for him for other reasons.
The president has been obsessing on Ronald Reagan the past few months, referring to him in private and attempting to use him to buttress his position in public. They say Republicans can’t get over Reagan, but really it’s Democrats who aren’t over him, and who draw the wrong lessons from his success. Reagan himself never bragged about his ability to convince the American people. He’d never point a finger and say: “I’ll go to the people and grind you to dust.” He thought speaking was a big part of leadership, but only part, and in his farewell address he went out of his way to say he never thought of himself as a great communicator. He thought he simply communicated great things—essentially, the vision of the founders as applied to current circumstances.
Democrats were sure Reagan was wrong, so they explained his success to themselves by believing that it all came down to some kind of magical formula involving his inexplicably powerful speeches. They misdefined his powers and saddled themselves with an unrealistic faith in the power of speaking.
But speeches aren’t magic. A speech is only as good as the ideas it advances. Reagan had good ideas. Obama does not.