Thursday, October 16, 2008

Eloquence, Performatives, and the Presidency

So I have 8000000000000 things to do right now, but I'm going to take just a moment to comment on something because I think it's important to note.

The New Yorker's Obama endorsement makes many excellent points. You should read it. But to my mind, the most important point it made was this one:

Although his opponents have tried to attack him as a man of “mere” words, Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.

See, the presidency is largely a symbolic office. Congress is the body that's going to have to actually make and pass these tax cuts and health care policies--all the president can do is encourage and sign. One of the reasons I was an early Obama supporter was that he seemed to have a much better grasp of and less warmongering slant on foreign relations. And foreign relations are carried out by, yes, talking. Words. Speeches.

There's a huge place for performative language in all of this. Timothy Cook outlines this whole process expertly in Governing With the News. The president makes a speech, and policy changes. Need an example? Remember the "Axis of Evil" comment, and how suddenly after that we seem to be dealing with North Korea and Iran increasing their nuclear capacities?

Every time the president makes a speech, it is news. Even now, when the candidates make a speech, it is news. That news gets carried not just to voters, but to other countries and other governments. The reason McCain keeps harping not on Obama's willingness to go into Pakistan in search of Bin Laden, but his willingness to talk about it, is that he knows that by making a statement the president has to back it up.

A popular president's speeches could buoy Wall Street just by pledging support; it is a measure of Bush's lame duckitude that he can't. Any president can screw foreign policy up majorly just by mistaking the names of countries or leaders; just ask Richard Nixon about Mauritius and Mauritania.

The president has to know when to speak and when to shut up, what to say and what not to say, and yes, be willing to talk to other leaders. Talk doesn't prevent action, or require some sort of soul-selling to Ahmadinejad like McCain seems to think it does. But it does indeed have an effect on what happens.

So having a president who is a man of "mere" words, as opposed to one who regularly mistakes one country for another (or one Supreme Court Justice for another--ask Justice Breyer if he's slightly insulted at being confused with Alito this morning) is actually rather important when you think about it.

And after watching those debates, which candidate do YOU think is more likely to shoot himself in the foot while attempting diplomacy, whether it's face to face or through the press?