President Barack Obama’s Thursday night address to the nation on immigration, and his plan to initiate reform through executive action, set off a firestorm around the nation. Conservatives are crying foul, claiming the President has overstepped his authority and passed a point of no return. There is already cries from the far right to sue the President, commence impeachment hearings, and shut down the government in retaliation. Democrats, however, applauded the move, saying the President finally decided to “go big” on some sort of action after sputtering for months and appearing asleep at the switch.
While this may be a surprise, cursory glance at the actual transcript of the President’s speech reveals something rather interesting, and potentially troubling, about both Obama’s action, and his opponents’ reactions. The speech itself, when read on its own, had the potential to appear bold, visionary, and surprisingly presidential.
Speeches tend to take on a very different tone when read as opposed to being heard. Voice inflection, as well as body language, creates a whole different perception than simply reading text on a page. The follow passage is an example of this principle in action:
“The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican President and every single Democratic President for the past half century. And to those Members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill. I want to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution. And the day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary. Meanwhile, don’t let a disagreement over a single issue be a dealbreaker on every issue. That’s not how our democracy works, and Congress certainly shouldn’t shut down our government again just because we disagree on this. Americans are tired of gridlock. What our country needs from us right now is a common purpose – a higher purpose.”
When reading the text on its own, it appears that Obama is trying to simply light a fire under Congress to get some work done. That, in and of itself, is a traditional role of the President – to remind Congress of their job, and vice-versa. What makes these words so difficult to swallow isn’t the text, but the voice doing the delivery. President Obama, thanks in no small part to the image of arrogance he has cultivated, intentionally or not, throughout his presidency, comes off as aloof, recalcitrant, almost spoiled. Rather using this passage as a legislative “call to arms” for the country, his body language and vocal inflection puts off the impression that he doesn’t care who disagrees with him; he’s going to do what he plans to do, and that’s that.
This is where great intentions and words are often destroyed by the cult of personality, and President Obama possesses one in a big way.
The President enjoyed bulletproof control of Congress for six years, but now finds himself on the short end of the political stick. After so many years of feeling invincible, this speech exposed the President’s Achilles heel for all to see – he doesn’t know how to handle adversity. He enjoyed total control and an agreeable Congress far too long. Healthy, functional opposition to the Executive Branch has defined every great President going back to Washington, who had anti-tax whisky distillers to deal with. Lincoln dealt with opposition to the Civil War from within his own party. Wilson had a Republican Party which stonewalled the League of Nations. FDR had to fight Congress and the Judiciary to get parts of the New Deal pushed through, and a good chunk of it was still declared unconstitutional. Eisenhower had to be a centrist on many things to get major projects passed. Reagan had a strong Democratic Party in Congress to blunt many of the hard right’s plans, and Clinton had a strong Republican Party to keep his ambitions in check. Even Nixon’s own party forced him to keep his nose clean at times.
Obama had no such check on his authority, and his own arrogance has begun to led both him, and his party, off a cliff.
The immigration reform the President announced last night is actually fundamental common sense when the text is read on its own, free of Obama’s voice and body language. There are some objectionable passages, to be sure. These reforms, however, would have been swallowed far easier by citizens and the opposition had they been presented to the nation and Congress as a legislative suggestion, rather than slapped over the nations’ head as a blunt instrument.
Considering all the hubris-based issues President Obama has created for himself and those around him, last night’s speech was the opportunity to appear presidential, as a leader and not a bully. Sadly, it was yet another opportunity lost for a President who appears to have obtained an alleged destiny far too soon with far too little resistance along the way.
John E. Guzzardo’s latest ebook, “Paper Losses,” a story of the business side of newspapers and arrogance run amok, is available for Kindle pre-order through Amazon. Click here.