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James Moeller

James Moeller

First Posted March 4, 2009 | 01:38 PM (EST)
Updated May 13, 2009 | 03:59 PM (EST)

The Eloquent Presidency


Barack Obama's masterful performance before the joint session of Congress vividly reinforced the overriding importance of articulate communications in times of crisis.

Yes, words matter, but as Obama demonstrated how those words are communicated may matter more. The day of the speech, polls showed approximately 63 percent of voters supported the economic measures the president is pursuing. Polls taken immediately after the speech showed a jump to 80 percent approval.

It is no coincidence that the presidents generally considered among the best communicators in our history each took office during one our nation's most difficult times.

It is unlikely that anyone but Abraham Lincoln with his considerable rhetorical skills could have summoned the nation to war or begun the healing process through the beautifully simple 256 word Gettysburg Address.

Numerous comparisons have been made between the state of the nation in 1933 when FDR became president and the current crisis facing President Obama. What became obvious Tuesday night are the striking similarities in their abilities to at once convince the American people of the depths of the crisis while summoning their pride and optimism in the future.

Ronald Reagan took over a country racked by double digit inflation and unemployment, a significantly reduced standing in the world and its confidence shaken to the core. Lingering concerns over Reagan's intellect, ideology and experience were quickly washed away by his uncanny ability to communicate a path forward in clear, concise and compelling language. To those listening, there was never any doubt about where Reagan was leading the country.

Now, following an election where his opponents cynically (and unsuccessfully) tried to make his eloquence a campaign issue, we have Barack Obama describing in sweeping narrative his vision for how we can escape the current crisis and rebuild our prosperity.

Each of these presidents took office in times of unparalleled difficulties and each, so far, was able to summon the best in America to address the problems in dramatic fashion with long-lasting impact.

Their singular ability to educate Americans about the extent and implications of the challenges in honest and compelling fashion made it possible to propose bold and controversial solutions. In explaining the Main Street implications of the credit crisis Tuesday night, Obama likely made it possible to do the unpalatable -- further bail out the banking system.

Each leader then successfully expropriated versions of the American Dream to help drive support for his most ambitious and difficult initiatives. Reagan's description of America as a "shining city on the hill" made it possible to summon the will to effectively dismantle the Soviet Union.

Does eloquence ensure a successful presidency? Probably not and it doesn't even ensure election. Williams Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson were two of the finest American political orators, yet both were defeated in their attempts to capture the presidency. Of course neither of them ran in a time of national crisis. Had they, the results might have been quite different.

Will Obama's outsized communications abilities allow him to succeed in leading the country back to prosperity? Only time will tell. But following eight years of a president who relished being "misunderestimated" the American people are clearly ready for an eloquent presidency.