Analysis: Words are Obama's power tool

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  June 27, 2008 at 10:52 AM
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WASHINGTON, June 27 (UPI) -- Sen. Barack Obama has already revealed the secret political weapon most likely to make his presidency a success: his bully pulpit.

The bully pulpit is the term Theodore Roosevelt used more than a century ago to describe his activist use of rhetoric during the nearly eight years he successfully served as president of the United States.

The use of rhetoric to command and maintain national leadership has been formally studied since the days of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle more than 2,300 years ago. The Founding Fathers of the United States were steeped in Aristotle's teachings and in the formal use of rhetoric as well.

However, in the 36 years between the end of the 1861-65 Civil War and TR's accession to the presidency in 1901, successive, mainly Republican presidents, had been low-key, cautious and reassuring. Bold rhetorical leadership went out of fashion.

TR changed that. Ironically, his most successful successors in the use of rhetoric as a tool of presidential leadership were Democrats -- Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. It took Ronald Reagan to show that a conservative Republican president could again command powerful, inspiring rhetoric as well as liberal Democratic ones.

Powerful rhetoric is certainly not essential to presidents proving wise, shrewd or successful in their policies. But it is essential if they want to get credit for those policies.

Republicans William Howard Taft, Warren Harding, Gerald Ford and George Herbert Walker Bush were all examples of hard-working, responsible, wise and personally admirable presidents who produced exceptionally successful economic and national security policies. However, they all lacked the rhetoric to magnify themselves and sell their accomplishments to the American people.

Three of those GOP presidents -- Taft, Ford and Bush -- lost their re-election bids, and the fourth, Harding, died in office, of overwork. Harding was the first president to have his health fatally undermined by his workload since James Polk, who died shortly after leaving office in 1849.

Rhetoric is especially crucial to a president like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, who either wants to or is forced by circumstances to lead the American people into radically new policy directions.

This is why the exceptional rhetorical skills that Obama, D-Ill., has already shown in his campaign this year come at an essential time in American history. The current unprecedented soaring global oil prices show every sign of continuing and staying at record levels for decades to come. The next president, whoever he is, therefore will face the challenge of teaching the American people that the gasoline-rich lifestyles they have enjoyed since the creation of the modern suburbs in the late 1940s and of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s simply are not going to continue. The economic pressures, especially on the growing of food, that are now coming because of Global Change, present another area of national crisis where strong presidential leadership utilizing powerful rhetoric is going to be essential.

Obama further profits from the positive nature of his rhetoric. Many critics have pointed out that on the campaign trail he has been able to avoid specifics and his rhetoric, while inspiring, is often vague and lacks detail. The same criticisms were made -- with much justice -- of the three great rhetoricians who dominated the Progressive Era of American politics from 1896 to 1920 -- Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

Therefore, if he wins election, Obama will then have to get hard and specific, and go into detail the way President Franklin Roosevelt did in his famous "fireside chats" of the 1930s. If Obama's presidency is to succeed, mastering that challenge will prove essential, but he already has shown he has the tools to do it.

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