Setting terms of engagement: thoughts on Obama and some predecessors

Setting terms of engagement: thoughts on Obama and some predecessors
Ed’s note: this essay is adapted from Woodward’s new book, The Perfect Response: Studies of the Rhetorical Personality (Lexington Books), in which the author identifies and examines how and why certain communicators—from public figures to Hollywood actors—excel at connecting with their audiences. This selection was adapted from the book’s third chapter, “Saving the World One Person at a Time: the Inclination to Engage.”

obama woodward featureIn the Twenty-first Century there is irony in focusing on those who want to use direct communication to be a force in the lives of others. Social observers continue to tally the countervailing effects of newer media that put us at a greater physical and psychic distance. The much-discussed shifts are familiar. Mediated and fragmented computer and phone communication increasingly occurs in a din of distraction and noise, leaving less time for direct and richer forms of interpersonal contact. The average young American now spends close to seven and a half hours a day in front of various screens delivering phone, television and Internet content.¹ Moreover, even while remaining residents of specific communities, we seem to act less like citizens and more like consumers,² disengaging from traditional organizations in favor of the diluted “friendship” of wired and “virtual” communities.³

But, of course, the essence of character is that it can sometimes override the constraints of new circumstances. And for a distinct minority the mastery of direct interpersonal fluency remains a central part of their identity. They seek the opportunity to connect directly with others. We are perhaps never more attractive as a species than during those moments when we work hard to take the strangeness out of a first encounter.

For the rhetorical personality in particular, others in the same space loom large as the generative sources of their own rhetoric and behavior. To be sure, these recipients of the rhetorical personality’s attention are often an audience to be won over. But they are also something more. In the best of circumstances, they are the energy supply for the encounter. Not only receiving his or her message, their presence shapes it as well. When the beloved former Archbishop of Cape Town South Africa was asked why he didn’t go quietly into retirement, the infectiously affable Desmond Tutu remarked, “I wish I could shut up, but I can’t, and I won’t.”4 Tutu is still a master of “reading” audiences and melding their needs to his own political ends.

The challenges of assessing a figure’s ability for transformative engagement are not always easy. Barack Obama is typical of the kinds of public figures whose rhetorical temperaments are trickier to read. As pointed out elsewhere in these pages, he is extremely adaptable to nearly any kind of audience. And he is unusual as a President in the range of experiences and aspirations he can genuinely claim as his own. Mirroring his style in the campaign of 2008, the official White House Web site describes a man for all seasons, managing to touch almost every corner of the fractured political landscape:

With a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, President Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. He was raised with help from his grandfather, who served in Patton’s army, and his grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle management at a bank. After working his way through college with the help of scholarships and student loans, President Obama moved to Chicago, where he worked with a group of churches to help rebuild communities devastated by the closure of local steel plants. He went on to attend law school, where he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. Upon graduation, he returned to Chicago to help lead a voter registration drive, teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and remain active in his community.5

obama feature flagRhetorically, Obama uses this biography to telegraph to audiences that, at some point, his own life story has intersected with theirs. He is also a gifted writer and a trenchant thinker. And though he must address structural changes in the economy and the fragmenting nature of threats to security, he strives to explain as well as advocate. Combined with the downward inflictions of certainty fromhis steady baritone, the overall effect is of a figure of enormous fluency and rhetorical confidence.6

And yet there is also the famous detachment, described by many as a persistent “coolness” that falls well short of the Clintonian affectation of a person who couldn’t be happier to be sharing the same room with an audience. Historian Garry Wills describes Obama as “the perpetual outsider who wins acceptance in whatever new company he joins.”7 He is comfortable with others, but shows more caution than those who often seek engagement for its own sake. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd reflected a common complaint about Obama after his subdued response to a failed attack by a Pakistani-American on a Detroit-bound airliner. The President was issuing bulletins, she noted, when he should have “juiced up the empathy quotient” with a more heartfelt response.8

Professor Gary C. Woodward

Perhaps Obama’s preference to use a teleprompter for even the most casual statement is a significant indicator of his caution. The television device projects a speech text onto a mirror in front of a camera lens. His extensive use of it represents a level of message discipline that surpasses even what is usually customary in the heavily scripted White House. Teleprompters turn a prepared text into a presentation that has the appearance of extemporaneity, reducing the risk that a stray comment will get a leader in trouble.9 They also tend to lock the reader into a set manuscript that is difficult to momentarily discard in favor of freer riffs. With Obama these hardly seem to be a crutch. Used by so gifted a public speaker, a teleprompter’s presence at most presidential appearances seems to indicate a desire to restrain initial responses. He is effective, funny, and a quick study in the large gatherings of legislators or citizens used to focus attention on White House initiatives.10 But he may be uncomfortable with the possibility of being caught in an off-message discrepancy.

By contrast, the most passionate among those who fit the archetype we’ve described here are compelled by an ineffable combination of duty and desire to make their case to whoever will listen. One tracks the grim march toward defeat of presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey with the sadness that comes from witnessing the crushing power of inevitability over instinct. In 1968 Humphrey could not unite a Democratic Party or a nation bitterly divided by the war in Vietnam, and shaken by the urban bloodshed that followed the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Campaign stops were, as Theodore White observed, “a public humiliation” of shouts and jeers.11 With funds drying up and the press writing him off, Humphrey vowed to plow on, noting that he would continue even if it meant refusing further money and campaigning with his wife from a rented station wagon. It was an echo of a similar inevitability in President Woodrow Wilson, who went on a 21-day non-stop speaking tour in 1919 determined to win backing from a hostile Senate for the new League of Nations. Distrustful of the press, and with radio still in the future, he felt he had little choice but to make his case directly to audiences of ordinary Americans.12 The President’s body finally gave out after an address in Pueblo Colorado. Partially paralyzed from a stroke, he returned to Washington and never regained his strength. Wilson’s political life ended just like Humphrey’s would many years later: on the evanescent hope for the rhetorical transformation of a reluctant public.

Woodward is a professor of communication studies at TCNJ, and the author of Center Stage: Media and the Performance of American Politics (Roman and Littlefield, 2007). He teaches courses in persuasion, argument, and philosophy of communication.

1 Tamar Lewin, “If your Children are Awake, Then They’re Probably Online,” New York Times, January 20, 2010, A1, A3.

2 Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton, Habits of the Heart, Updated Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), xvi-xxii.

3 Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier sees online patterns of “friendship” as little more than an “artifice,” and a ruse to sell distinct audiences to advertisers. See Michael Agger, “The Geek Freaks,” Slate, January 3, 2010, (1 Feb, 2010). The classic study of the complementary pattern of civic disengagement is Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), 15-28.

4 Deborah Solomon, “Questions for Archbishop Desmond Tutu,” New York Times Magazine, March 7, 2010, 12.

5 “President Barack Obama,” White House Official Web site,, (13 April, 2010).

6 Obama has talked about his “typical Midwestern newscaster’s voice” that eases “communication between myself and white audiences.” He is also aware of the subtle adaptations of language and style as he addresses different groups, especially black audiences. See David Remnick, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (New York: Knopf, 2010), 361.

7 Garry Wills, “Behind Obama’s Cool,” New York Times Magazine, April 12, 2010, 8.

8 Maureen Dowd, “As the Nation’s Pulse Races, Obama Can’t Seem to Find His,” New York Times, December 29, 2009,, (13 April, 2010).

9 Obama has been criticized and sometimes lampooned for his consistent use of the teleprompter, even for seemingly informal settings. See, for example, Roger Cohen, “The Narrowing”, New York Times, March 18, 2010,, (13 April, 2010).

10 See for example, Barack Obama, “Remarks at the Opening Session of a Bipartisan Meeting on Health Care Reform,” February 25, 2010, Government Printing Office online,, (13 April, 2010).

11 Theodore White, The Making of the President, 1968 (New York: Atheneum, 1969), 341.

12 Samuel and Dorothy Rosenman, Presidential style: Some Giants and a Pygmy in the White House (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 256-259.

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