"Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory . . . Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable." - Winston S. Churchill
"(I) won a nickname, 'The Great Communicator.' But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things." – Ronald Reagan
"Don't tell me words don't matter! 'I have a dream'-- just words? 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal'-- just words? 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself'-- just words? Just speeches?" – Barack Obama (borrowing heavily from Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts).
As President Obama's approval numbers continue to fall, (a Rasmussen poll shows his public support down 19 points since the start of the year), pundits are beginning to ask why. After all, approval ratings rise and fall, but the rate of Obama's decline in popularity is unprecedented for a newly elected president.
Perhaps it's all about the economy. Or maybe Obama is being rightly blamed for flawed policies, such as his proposals to exert more government control over health care. Or maybe Afghanistan is more politically problematic than we imagined. More likely, though, his fundamental problem is that he has, thus far, failed as a communicator.
After all, a great orator may not be able to sweep problems under the rug forever, but shouldn't he be able to utilize his rhetorical skills to remain popular during his honeymoon? (Of course, truly great orators such as Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan use their words to solve problems, not merely mask them, but you get my point.)
Ironically, the ability to communicate and inspire us was always billed as Obama's strong suit. Clearly, it was not his experience as a U.S. senator, military leader, or entrepreneur.
But too many intellectuals mistook elegance for eloquence. In many cases these were liberals who saw what they were looking for. Still, far too many "serious" conservatives supported Obama because he was – believe it or not – a good speaker.
The folks who bought into the notion that Obama is a truly great communicator failed to appreciate that his margin of victory was not terribly impressive. Considering the obstacles Republicans faced in 2008 and the economic collapse that had occurred, Obama should have won with more than 52 percent of the vote. And going back to the primary election, Hillary Clinton outperformed him during the second half of the campaign.
No single event has illustrated Obama's rhetorical failings more than his big prime time press conference on health care in July. This was his chance to speak directly to the American people and win them over. Aside from becoming embroiled in the Henry Louis Gates affair – which took up a week of attention – Obama clearly failed to persuade the public of the virtues his health care ideas, as his popularity continued to fall.
Obama will reportedly begin a new push for health care reform this week. There is still time for him to turn things around, but the essential element will be his ability to sell his ideas to the American public. So far, we aren't buying.