Recently I exchanged a few emails with Elvin T. Lim, a professor of government at Wesleyan University and author of the book The Anti Intellectual Presidency. Lim’s particular expertise is in the area of political communication, and I found his comments about Barack Obama’s oratory to be particularly interesting.
The key to Barack Obama’s rhetorical success is not too different from Ronald Reagan’s. Recall that many liberals thought Reagan’s speeches too vacuous, but conservatives thought they were sublime. Well, the tables have turned. Many conservatives today think that Obama offers platitudes (a charge that you will recall Hillary Clinton made during the primary season), but liberals think his speeches are thoughtful and considered.
I don’t think this perfect inversion is coincidental. In both cases, those who already agreed with a particular president read substance into his rhetorical symbology but those who disagreed with him saw only empty soundbites. Both supporters and detractors of Obama and Reagan are right. Obama and Reagan (and indeed Franklin Roosvelt and Abraham Lincoln and other “great” American orators) shared at least one thing in common – they knew how to use “spacious” rhetoric to generate assent by appealing to mythic ideas without getting bogged down by divisive details. They were both vacuous and intellectual. It is this hybridity that explains Obama’s spellbinding magic.