In just a few days, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. He’ll be following George W. Bush, of course: a man that made a distinct impression in a number of ways. Bush’s administration extended the powers of the executive branch to a level unseen in the modern era; his administration broke international law with an almost studied negligence; and Bush, the man himself, was an extraordinarily bad speaker. Now, we all know about his tendency to trip over his own words. Yet, his failure to follow basic grammatical rules distracts us from an important aspect of his rhetoric: its anti-intellectualism.
In The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush, Elvin T. Lim takes note of the growing anti-intellectualism in the rhetoric of presidents. Where once, they engaged their audience with complex arguments for and explanations of their policies, the rhetoric of the modern presidency is now characterized by its use of slogans, appeals to emotion, applause lines, and its unimaginative simplicity.
Lim, quite understandably, sees this as a serious problem and, even, a threat to democracy. If the president cannot, or will not, speak to the citizenry with any kind of complexity or depth, how can we expect an informed public? And if the president’s rhetoric is detracting from, rather than contributing constructively to, public deliberation, on which basis are the people making their decisions?
There are some things to be hopeful about. Not only is Obama an articulate, eloquent, and elevating speaker, he’s shown us he has the ability to speak about complex issues without “dumbing” them down. His speech in March of 2008 on race in America, titled “A More Perfect Union”, is a good example of his willingness to engage the citizenry intellectually. Lim, though, criticizes Obama for the vagueness and imprecision that often creeps into his speech. “Barack Obama waxed poetic about his theme of ‘change,’ while leaving details of his inspirational rhetoric unspecified. Tellingly, he drew support from both ultra liberals (such as supporters of MoveOn.org) and moderate Republicans with this strategy.”
Let’s hope that with the end of Obama’s campaign for the presidency, he’ll feel less pressured to appeal to everyone and will speak to the people with directness, honesty, and a demonstrable respect for their intelligence.