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Great orator not necessarily great communicator

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opinion Dickinson,North Dakota 58602
The Dickinson Press
Great orator not necessarily great communicator
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

What with the Tea Party all the rage these days and angry voters seeming like the new norm, even Washington is anti-Washington.

Incumbents are running scared (except for those too scared to run). And all Washington Insiders have urgent new insights (gleaned from a fact-finding drop-by outside the Beltway) about what is wrong with where they work.


America had high hopes on Jan. 20, 2009 as we watched the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. He was, after all, an impressive intellect and a gifted orator, and we hoped that somehow he would be able to deliver us from our miseries of two wars and a shattering global economy.

Even those who hadn't voted for him were saying they were proud that day, for the ceremony on the Capitol steps was not really his Inauguration, but ours. It freed us from our shameful history of legal slavery -- and from the shackles of a racial division we all knew existed decades after our laws said it no longer did.

Now, 16 months after that winter day, we are in the spring of our discontent. It is a paradoxical season. America's voters say they are fed up with those bailouts of ingrate bankers. (Voters don't seem grateful that our economic crises seem to have eased, apparently thanks to government actions started by President George W. Bush and continued/modified by President Obama. As a message politics mantra, "too-big-to-fail" failed.)

Meanwhile, Obama also pursued a health care reform agenda that a dozen presidencies had seen as unwinnable -- and won. New reforms were clamped on insurance companies; health insurance will be made available to millions now lacking it.

Yet while the Obama administration and many experts tell us Americans will be far better off because of the newly enacted reforms, critics have been equally strong in spreading a far different message that frightened millions. Critics convinced them that Obama's reforms can cause them to lose their present doctors and insurance plans. And cost them more.

Obama held town-hall meetings outlining the virtues of his reform for those uninsured. But his message was not aimed at reassuring Middle America -- the 80 percent who now have insurance. It wasn't a message that finally they would be empowered so their insurer can never drop them when they get sick.

And this gets us to the one of the early lessons we have learned by watching the Obama Presidency. It is a lesson about presidential leadership -- what it takes to be a successful president and what may not be so important, after all.

We have seen presidents who seemed very intelligent and some who seemed not so very (which may explain why we never read any Wilsonisms but all have our favorite Bushisms). We have also seen presidents who were intelligent but not smart; that is, not skillful at manipulating their levers of power (which may explain Jimmy Carter's Camp David/Mideast Peace highs and presidential lows.)

In Obama we may be witnessing the difference between a Gifted Orator and a Great Communicator. Ronald Reagan, famously known as the Great Communicator, didn't know or want to know all details of his policies -- but he was a master at communicating their thrust and themes to people. So did Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both excelled at grasping the concerns and fears of ordinary people -- and speaking in short, simple, concise phrases that eased their fears and won their support.

Obama, a most intelligent president and gifted orator, has become famous for mastering his policies and giving journalists and voters long and detailed answers that cover all relevancies of complex policies.

As a president, Obama has been "The Man Who Knew Too Much" -- and unlike Alfred Hitchcock's stars, he has been intent on telling us all he knows.

Who knew that oratory and intellect could be handicaps to presidential salesmanship and leadership?

-- Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at