THE standard complaint about President Barack Obama — that he's better at giving speeches than running the government — was a cliche even before the opening of 2013, his worst year in the White House.
After the epic incompetence of the health-care rollout, even his friends are hard-pressed to deny the charge. Still, if you ask me, the main thing about Obama is not that he gives too many speeches but that he gives too few.
Obama's best and most memorable speeches have all been in the cause of getting elected. In selling himself, he's often been superb — partly (and rightly) by identifying that purpose with bigger issues, notably America's longing to transcend race.
He moved people, including many not strongly committed to his view of activist government, and commanded their admiration. I was one of them. In so doing, he wasn't faking or pretending to be something he wasn't, as the standard charge implies. He was laying the groundwork for what could have been a great presidency.
When it came to selling policies, as opposed to selling himself, Obama was much less effective. And here's the puzzle: For the most part, it wasn't because his efforts fell flat; it was because he didn't really try.
Health-care reform is the most telling example. Yes, Obama has given countless speeches endorsing the idea in the most general terms — advocating universal affordable access, for instance, and pointing out that the United States is unique among advanced nations in failing to provide it.
He's made that point along with other more questionable claims (the reform will lower costs, improve quality, reduce the budget deficit and so forth) at election-style rallies in front of crowds of cheering supporters. He preached to the converted.
But aside from promising that people who liked their insurance could keep it (which wasn't true), he did very little to market the policy to skeptical voters, of whom there were many from the outset, and certainly never as carefully or creatively as he had marketed himself.
The reform was a momentous undertaking. Yet those speeches made no real effort to describe the policy, defend it against plausible alternatives, prepare people for setbacks, or answer the criticisms — including intelligent criticisms — that were being made of it.
Obama said more about the individual mandate when he thought it was a bad idea, while campaigning against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, than after he'd decided it was an essential part of the reform.