CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - After a brutal month of raucous town hall meetings, strident attacks and plunging approval ratings, President Obama will address healthcare reform in a speech before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. John Murphy is a professor of communication who has spent most of his career studying presidential rhetoric, writing extensively about John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, among others. In an interview with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain, Murphy talked about why Obama has been ineffective and what he needs to do to turn things around.
Obama has been praised for his ability to inspire and educate through his speech, and yet the more he talked about healthcare this summer, the less effect he seemed to have. What happened?
He was too fragmented. The formats provided by press conferences and town halls diffused his message by tying it to a series of disconnected questions. The sort of question determined his response, which tended to focus on what the plan would do for the individual who asked. Thus, his persuasive appeals trended toward the pragmatic and he never quite articulated a coherent presidential plan and nested it within a larger moral narrative. He simply dealt with a series of individual issues and Americans saw mainly these disconnected responses. Having said all that, keep in mind that this issue is beyond tough, and numerous presidents seeking universal healthcare have failed. Obama, in fact, has gotten closer than anyone else - already.
Fear, both justified and otherwise, has been a driving factor in the public debate. Is there effective rhetoric for countering that, once it's set in?
Obama needs to, first, send large numbers of surrogates out to rebut the misinformation and ease the fears and, second, develop an alternative moral narrative to the fear appeal. You can't beat something with nothing. He needs to return to some of his campaign rhetoric, which energized Americans around the need to "write the next great chapter" in the American story - that universal health insurance is the next great step that we can take to make of this nation a more perfect union.
What will you be listening for on Wednesday evening?
I'll be listening for him to lay out that coherent moral and political framework I said he needs. He does not necessarily need a tag line, but JFK's "New Frontier" and Ronald Reagan's "shining city on a hill" elevated their policy agendas and located them within the sweep of American history. They also made opposition difficult: You refuse to be the next generation of American pioneers? Really? You don't think America is special, a shining city on a hill? I'll also be listening for him to refute or rebut the worst-fear appeals and for a willingness to identify some adversaries. At this point, it's clear that there are people who oppose this effort. Moral dramas require conflict; heroes need villains to be heroes. He needs some villains to make this work.
Some supporters of reform have suggested that what is missing is a "give 'em hell" attitude, reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman. Is that what's needed?
Yes and no. As I said, he needs some villains. But he's not FDR or Truman - the kind of attacks Truman made are not in Obama. Rather, I think he needs to think more of a rhetoric he knows and understands in his bones - the civil rights movement. Think of King's sadness when he talked about white moderates who just didn't understand the fierce urgency of now and King's anger at those who would beat God's children - that's the sort of outrage Obama can tap, I think.