THE BLOG
08/09/2011 10:46 pm ET | Updated Oct 09, 2011

Obama and the Debt Crisis

Actions Speak Louder than Words

As a presentations coach, I show archival videos as positive and negative role models to demonstrate what participants should and should not do when they present. Although most of my participants are business men and women, most of the videos are of political figures, such as The Kennedy-Nixon debate and public appearances by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, both Presidents Bush, and Barack Obama.

This often prompts a question about how many politicians I have coached. My answer is, "Zero," which often prompts a follow-up question, "Why not?" My answer to that question resonates with today's headlines, and particularly with President Obama. "In order for any speech or presentation to succeed, it must have a single, well-defined, and clearly stated goal. My job as a coach is to help speakers and presenters define and express their goals; but it is difficult to do that with politicians because they are obliged to satisfy different constituencies and often end up compromising their messaging."

Over the past weekend, two political commentators -- one from the right and one from the left -- took the president to task for that very shortcoming in the way he handled the debt crisis. Peggy Noonan made her critique in her weekly Wall Street Journal column:

The power of the president's oratory was always exaggerated. It is true that a good speech put him on the map in 2004 and made his rise possible...But speeches aren't magic. A speech is only as good as the ideas it advances. Reagan had good ideas. Obama does not. The debt-ceiling crisis revealed Mr. Obama's speeches as rhetorical kryptonite. It is the substance that repels the listener.

As a conservative columnist and a former speechwriter for President Reagan, Ms. Noonan's position is understandable; but her opinion was echoed in the New York Times by Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University who identifies himself as "a messaging consultant to nonprofit groups and Democratic leaders." In his op-ed article, Professor Westen draws a distinction between the president's acknowledged superior speaking style and the substance of his actions:

[H]e ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.

Professor Westen went on to chastise President Obama because "history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise," and urged him to take a strong, clear stand, just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did in similar contentious economic circumstances:

Roosevelt offered Americans a promise to use the power of his office to make their lives better and to keep trying until he got it right... In a 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden, he thundered, "Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred."

As a presentations coach, I urge you to take a stand whenever you speak or present. In the sales arena, this is known as, "Ask for the order!"

Actions speak louder than words.