In a bid to shape his legacy, Obama the orator to ditch the dais

  • AFP, Washington
  • Updated: Jan 14, 2016 14:12 IST
US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at University of Nebraska Omaha arena, in Omaha, Nebraska. (Reuters Photo)

For a decade, President Barack Obama leaned on dazzling oratory to advance his politics. Now, in a bid to shape the 2016 election and his legacy, he’s turning off the teleprompter.

“He wants to do less talking at people and more talking with people,” said White House communications director Jen Psaki, sketching a new approach for Obama’s final year in the White House.

For sure, there will be more speeches and more soaring rhetoric. But Obama will increasingly use forum-style discussions to get his message across.

That starts on Thursday in Louisiana, when he debates his recent State of the Union address with voters.

Engaging unpredictable and often unsupportive members of the public is risky in US’ tightly scripted politics.

But political gravity has caught up with Obama.

The Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to allow many of his offerings to pass its lips.

Presidential policy addresses will no longer carry the same executive weight, unless backed by the rare threat of unilateral action.

All the while, would-be successors to the presidency are wrenching the spotlight away.

“The danger for a president in the last year of his presidency, with the Congress controlled by another party, is that he becomes irrelevant,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

A woman becomes emotional as she hugs US President Barack Obama during an event at the University of Nebraska Omaha Baxter Arena. (AFP Photo)

The White House wants to keep Obama relevant by, quite literally, changing the terms of the debate.

Psaki pointed to a recent televised discussion on gun control as an example of things to come.

“He talked to a number of people who had strong disagreements with him, and that is something he has expressed to us he wants to do quite a bit more of,” she said.

“He knows that helping to facilitate that dialogue is something that he can play a role in doing as President.”

By ditching the dais, Obama was better able to frame the debate on gun control, according to Hall Jamieson, putting across new lines of argument, in a more engaging way.

“I thought it was rhetorically important, I think it changed the terms of the debate.”

If future exchanges are similarly appealing, “He will pick up news coverage for them in ways that underscore his agenda,” she said.

“It becomes a way of seeding the ground to make it more hospitable to a democratic Congress and a Democratic President.”

Presidential regrets

The recent televised gun debate -- despite addressing a supercharged subject, in the midst of an ultra-partisan election campaign - was also notable for its civility.

That offers the White House a useful contrast to the bombast of Republican front-runner Donald Trump, but it might also allow Obama a final shot at his failed campaign promise to ease partisanship.

“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency -- that the rancour and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama told Congress and an audience of 31 million on Tuesday.

“I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”

While not ending the Civil War or presiding over a tidal wave of socially defining legislation, Obama could provide a model for debate, according to Kathryn Olson, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“He has to get people talking to each other, that is going to be necessary but not sufficient for any kind of change in this country,” she said.

“Showing people talking to each other -- including him listening and talking to people -- is important, it’s maybe his best chance to make a difference.”

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