By Sarah Wheaton
By speaking from a podium, President Barack Obama may have made his last stand for the Oval Office speech on Sunday night.
It’s never been the president’s best stage as a communicator, White House aides acknowledge, which may be why it was only Obama’s third attempt in seven years to use his iconic office as a backdrop for a speech to the nation. But if ever Obama needed a bully pulpit, it was now, as his most intractable domestic and foreign policy problems collided after a mass-shooting by ISIS-inspired killers.
But the speech made little impact, and the odd posture of Obama standing in front of flags, a shelf of family pictures and what looked like cranberry-colored blackout curtains didn’t seem to make a difference. Bad lighting and a misplaced microphone that captured the sound of the president’s mouth even when not speaking didn’t help.
Indeed, while the Oval Office address was once a symbol of presidential gravitas – from the Cuban Missile Crisis to Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal from the presidential race to Richard Nixon’s resignation – more often than not, the president and his message can often get lost in the scenery.
“Very few presidents have been able to use that platform effectively,” said Jeff Shesol, a former Bill Clinton speechwriter who went on to found the consulting firm West Wing Writers.
Iconic images of Ronald Reagan, broad-shouldered and warm, consoling the nation after the Challenger disaster, remain the ideal, Shesol said. But he was the only one since Kennedy who seemed truly comfortable behind the big desk.
But Obama’s decision to deliver an Oval Office address to the nation while standing up was an innovation, but it only slightly improved his performance, according to Shesol.
“I don’t know that he has redeemed the Oval Office address as an institution, but I think it was a little more vigorous than they tend to be,” he said
Clinton and Obama, both accomplished political orators when speaking on the stump, prefer to give speeches standing before an audience. That’s just one of several factors “conspiring generally to kill the Oval Office address,” Shesol said.
There’s also the networks’ growing reluctance to hand over prime time. It’s something the Obama White House is keenly aware of.
“You can only play this card every once in awhile,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former top Obama strategist. Otherwise, he said, it “will become less of a moment or the networks will not give you the time.”
But that imperative to create a “moment” for the networks left some scratching their heads since Obama didn’t exactly say anything new. He didn’t shed new light on what exactly happened in San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday, when an apparently radicalized couple killed 14 people with a spray of assault rifles. He didn’t ask Congress to do anything he hadn’t asked it to do before. His calls to uphold American values by accepting Muslims echoed his message after the Paris attacks. And he did not present a new strategy for stopping the threat of terrorism at home or abroad.
But if you’ve heard all that before, that just means Obama wasn’t talking to you, Pfeiffer explained. “That is true [the media] have heard all this before, but most people haven’t,” he said.
During his White House days, Pfieffer and his colleagues would remind themselves that “the only people who watch the president every day are people who work at the White House or who cover the White House.”
Pfeiffer’s defense of the address – first issued as a memo to “pundits and reporters” over Twitter Sunday night that Obama was trying to reach a “broader audience” — might seem ironic. Pfeiffer, after all, urged Obama to expand the range of formats through which the president communicates with the public to include interviews with niche publications and non-journalists. He once called a debate over the president’s use of the Oval Office “an argument from the ’80s.”
But anachronistic as the Oval Office address might be, it does align with another element of the president’s ultramodern media strategy: it lets the man who loves to explain things avoid having crucial details end up on the cutting room floor.
The audience tuning into a Sunday night speech might be pretty close to a regular nightly newscast viewership. But on the news, Pfeiffer said, “they’re only getting what the president has to say distilled into 30 seconds.”
And the symbolism of the Oval Office remains irresistible. Ahead of the speech, a senior White House official explained that the room was a “familiar and appropriate venue” that “conveys the seriousness of the situation.”
The timing, Sunday night at 8 pm, also helped Obama reach an audience that really might not have been paying as close attention to politics: the speech fell between the Eagles vs. Patriots matchup and the Colts vs. Steelers game.
On Monday, though, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was peppered with questions about Obama’s seemingly lackluster performance.
The president, at least, was “pleased with the way that the process has come together,” Earnest insisted. But both political opponents and former aides were less impressed, as a flood of negative Twitter traffic and private missives suggested.
Earnest was left to argue that Obama wasn’t actually the first president to put a podium in the Oval Office; George W. Bush announced several nominations from his office.
But that wasn’t an address to the nation. And after Sunday night, few people expected to see another Oval Office address, sitting or standing, from this president.