Why Obama Fails As A Communicator

Obama Teleprompter 1Barack Obama came to the Presidency riding the crest of an oratorical tidal wave. Because of that, the media and pundits have said he could do no wrong (communications wise). Well, the emperor has no clothes.

It’s not that President Obama is a BAD communicator, particularly in contrast to the most recent President Bush. It’s just that Obama has failed to live up to his communications promise. He was a great speaker as a candidate but is not so great a communicator now that he is the leader. And he has not expanded his capabilities.

Here’s why:

  • Obama appears aloof and professorial in his many formal speaking situations. He actually holds his head up so his nose is often in the air, lips pursed – not very open and connecting.

  • He puts an enormous emphasis on scripts and the teleprompter. What a burden on his speechwriters, who are actually quite good and very well paid, but overworked. With the frantic and relentless pace and demand of Presidential communications, you very often have to rely on your mind, not your writers. You can’t lead from scripts.
  • And the President is way overexposed. Speaking so often on the less important diminishes the very important, and he could pick his shots much more wisely. Granted that he has put forth so many initiatives he may feel he must push them all, but the “bully pulpit” is best used powerfully, and sparingly.

His popularity ratings have plummeted in recent weeks. Even his controversial Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has a higher favorability rating than the President. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Barack Obama is young, fresh, personable, and has an attractive family. He certainly is bright and has strong opinions. But he is not the Great Communicator. Although that is just one of the reasons his popularity ratings have plummeted, it is a major one. People buy on emotion and justify with fact. At the emotional level, the President just does not connect as well as he could – and should, if he wants another term.

12 comments on “Why Obama Fails As A Communicator

  1. That does it for me. Thanks Stephen.
    Now to find the internet gremlin (or WordPress, or our typing finners) that did away with the originals.
    Bert

  2. We had a comment problem, and lost (or hopefully misplaced) them all from today. If you left one, or want to leave another, please do so – we love comments of course.
    Bert

  3. Thanks Stephen and Susan. Sharon too!
    And Sharon, I try not to let my politics show – and please note that President Bush was #1 on my Worst communicators list last year.
    It’s unfortunate that our country is more divided now than ever before, and I didn’t even mention that I think it is critical for a President to unite the country, not divide it – and communicating (content AND behavior) makes that happen, or not. President Lincoln ultimately united a country even far more deeply divided than ours. I hope Obama can do the same. Bush couldn’t.
    Bert

  4. Excellent post, Bert! In addition to the President’s over reliance on technology and other points you made, I also think he/Robert Gibbs’ requirement that media submit questions ahead of time flies in the face of openness and transparency. But nobody asked me! Unless you say otherwise, I plan to repost this on my blog at http://www.EveryDayPR.net. Thanks!

  5. I think you make some fair points with this post Bert and I found it interesting and thought-provoking. However, I would suggest that we also need to recognize the context in which Obama is communicating – i.e. extremely volatile and complex issues – and the audience to which he is speaking – the entire world.

    Given the way the press, opponents and general public pounce on the slightest misstep from politicians these days, I cannot fault the president for giving substantial thought and time to what he really wants to say, and making certain those thoughts come across properly. I also think it is only fair to recognize that while Obama does employ writers, it appears that a majority of the things he says come from HIM with assistance and collaboration from his writers. To me that displays an honesty and openness that makes me willing to forgive some “gaffes”.

    While I agree that the president could take some of your advice and adjust his speaking style, particularly in using the teleprompter more invisibly, I think that it is unfair and a little inflammatory to say he “fails” particularly so early in his presidency. Certainly, he can make improvements to his manner of communicating, as can all we all.

    But I would argue that not only are his messages and his manner of communicating what got him where he is – which you note – but his continuing to be who he is demonstrates that what he said and did to get elected, which presumably a majority of the population responded favourably to, is who he genuinely is. I don’t necessarily believe that because someone’s approach to communicating is careful and controlled that it isn’t authentic.

  6. I think we’re living on different planets. President Obama by all accounts is an exceptional communicator not because of how high he holds his head (should he be bent over) or the tilt of his nose (???) but based on the content of his deliveries and the actions he has demonstrated tackling one of the most unpopular, difficult but very important issues facing this country, health care.

  7. Well said Jeff. I love the truth in the proverb “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.” If you speak from the heart, you don’t have to worry too much about your style – it will be authentic.
    Bert

  8. Bert, excellent summary. Great communicators speak from the heart and the gut, not simply from the head. You CAN be thorough and yet street-level.