- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009



It is difficult to turn on a television set or read the front page of a newspaper without finding President Obama featured prominently.

He is on the air daily. Clearly, as he demonstrated in his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama is a great populist with exceptional ability as an orator. His speeches may be more numerous than even those of such notable orators as Franklin D. Roosevelt and the three-time Democratic nominee of the late-19th and early 20th centuries, William Jennings Bryan.

Mr. Obama’s modern communication skills have been essential in building public confidence in his willingness to tackle the gigantic problems our nation faces. The danger the president faces is of overexposure.

With the country deep in a recession, it has been necessary for Mr. Obama to address the nation frequently to give it confidence that he has plans to actively guide this country to a place where a turnaround in the economy looks possible, even though it is impossible to set a date.

The president has spaced his two major press conferences successfully, but he needs to tie his agenda to press conferences instead of daily appearances. Missing is the emergence of his Cabinet in a surrogate spokesperson role. The president’s poll ratings are high, but the danger is that his daily appearance schedule is so jammed that the public will lose interest in him.

Surrogates can change the pace effectively. When business shows the likelihood of recovery, the key role of the president will be to use his gifts as a brilliant orator and rebuild public confidence in the economy. Our leader then needs to encourage the public to return to the marketplace and spend money on autos and other products.

In the normal White House, the president needs time to carefully and fully consider each side of an issue and study the pros and cons before making a decision. The decision also must be made with senior staff consultation. At Mr. Obama’s present pace, there seems to be no time for such thorough consideration of issues. Other presidents took days and weeks to finalize a plan. One must wonder, for example, how much time the president has spent on the complicated auto-industry problem.

We have seen vast changes in communication in the past 75 years. President Roosevelt used radio, and his personal disabilities were unknown to most of the public. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower also used radio, but in a livelier and modern style. Reporters still transmitted breaking news through pay telephone calls. Broadcasts were delayed as press secretaries scanned presidential statements for error. President Kennedy had the first live televised presidential press conference - from a State Department room.

Mr. Obama still uses the media developed by his predecessors, but he has skillfully added the Internet. No matter which media are used or how many hours a day he works, communication still takes time from the president’s daily schedule.

Comparing Mr. Obama to Franklin Roosevelt reflects a major difference in communication styles. Roosevelt used timely, brief radio speeches to sell his economic plan and assure the American people as Japan brought us into war. He avoided overexposure but spoke movingly at the right times.

Perhaps the greatest speaker to seek the presidency was Bryan, the Democratic nominee in 1896, 1900 and 1908. He failed each time. Just as Mr. Obama gained wide attention with a speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Bryan gained his greatest attention with a speech titled “The Cross of Gold,” in which he attacked wealthy Easterners for supporting the gold standard to the detriment of the working class.

Bryan was 36 years old when he became the Democratic nominee, the youngest candidate ever to run for president on a major party ticket. He was first defeated by William McKinley even though Bryan was nominated by both the Democratic and the Populist parties. Just as Mr. Obama made full use of the Internet, Bryan invented the tactic of campaigning throughout the country by train.

Great as he was as an orator, he talked too much. On a normal campaign day, he would deliver four one-hour speeches. With other, shorter talks, his average day consisted of up to six hours of oratory. It was estimated that he spoke 63,000 words on any given day.

What Bryan did in no way resembles Mr. Obama’s use of modern communication, and Mr. Obama is the president, not a candidate. However, the problem of overexposure remains now as in those days. I think Mr. Obama’s friends in Hollywood would tell him overexposure can undercut the ability to command an audience.

Mr. Kennedy and President Reagan also had great communication skills. Mr. Kennedy often met reporters privately, but he in no way sought to dominate television. When he spoke, he exuded charm, and he worked carefully on his speeches with Ted Sorensen, arguably the greatest presidential speechwriter our nation has known.

Mr. Reagan often was described as a “Teflon president” whose informal sense of humor protected him from rough criticism. When Mr. Reagan spoke, most people listened, but he timed his television appearances carefully. Jack Kemp never became president, but he also had the ability to excite crowds with his enthusiasm.

In the past, surrogates, along with the press secretary and the director of communications, have relieved the president of the burden of time-consuming public overexposure. Surrogates, such as Cabinet officers or governors, can be assigned a message the president wants delivered. If they are given appropriate forums and topics on which they all speak on the same day in various regions, they will be effective.

It is time for Mr. Obama to change his pace and save presidential appearances for the times when his words will matter most.

Herbert G. Klein is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, retired editor in chief of Copley Newspapers and former Nixon White House director of communications. Hannah Powell assisted with this article.

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