U.S. President Barack Obama looks on while delivering remarks to workers on the economy at DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, California, November 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed
One of the most important skills that a leader can have is the ability to speak. Whether elected or not; whether the leader is Kennedy or Hitler, the ability to speak eloquently and convincingly has been of utmost importance to any world leader.
For Obama in particular, speaking has always been a strength. The president first truly arrived on the American political stage with an eloquent and heartfelt speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. A virtually unknown Illinois senator, Obama captivated the crowd as he spoke of the importance of unity in America, and of his own journey to success.
As he campaigned for the presidency in 2008, Obamaâ€™s speeches were well received by Americans, and even his opponents grudgingly admitted that the senator was a talented orator. As he was sworn into office, his speeches continued to inspire hope in Americans, and his approval rating began at 70%. Nobody could have foreseen that as Obamaâ€™s presidency went on, his ability to communicate would become a liability, rather than the strength that they had once been.
I am not arguing that Obama is a bad speaker. On the contrary, he is still a great orator with immense skill, though in some cases, that skill has itself declined, as I will explain later. But Obamaâ€™s biggest weakness is his inability to explain, to convince people of his own views on policy. He failed to convince Americans that military action in Syria was vital to their interests, and he has yet to persuade people that â€œObamacareâ€ will fix their healthcare system.
This ability of persuasion and oration was highly valued by the Ancient Greeks, and the Athenians were masters of the art. With a Persian invasion looming, the Greek leader Themistocles was able to convince the Athenian people to abandon their city, and allow it to be burned, in order to win the war at sea.
In the words of historian Tom Holland, â€œâ€What precise heights of oratory he attained, what stirring and memorable phrases he pronounced, we have no way of knowing…only by the effect it had on the assembly can we gauge what surely must have been its electric and vivifying quality.â€
The fact that the Athenian people followed his proposal speaks for itself. The ability of Themistocles to persuade people to support his policy was a skill that is also very important for leaders today, and it is a skill which Obama needs to improve. In his speech about Syria, the president failed to truly explain the importance of military action to a war-weary population. He did not successfully make the case to the American people, and so public opinion remained against war and thus Congress was pressured to reject his proposal.
Another aspect in which Obama needs to improve is his ability to empathize and understand peopleâ€™s suffering, whether as small as glitches in the Healthcare.gov website, or as large as economic recession and poverty. In this aspect too, we can learn much from the Ancient Greeks.
A generation after Themistocles, Pericles was the Athenian leader as they fought against the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War. While the war was going badly and many Athenians were lost, Pericles delivered a funeral oration for those who had died in battle.
The speech, often compared to the Gettysburg Address, was a stirring reminder for the Athenians of why they were fighting that war. Pericles reminded the people of the greatness of their country, and the honor in which the dead had lost their lives, saying of the soldiers that â€œChoosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour…â€
Once again, this demonstrates the power of a great speech in persuasion and unification. These are skills that President Obama must improve in order to become a better and more popular leader. He needs to appeal to the peopleâ€™s suffering and to explain the importance of his policies in alleviating that suffering.
Today, Obama has transformed dramatically from the young senator who stood up at the DNC and gave an historic speech. He has lost much of that energy and hopefulness that he once projected. When the president speaks today, he rarely uses his hands to gesture, and he is far more muted than he used to be.
In order to become a stronger president, Obama needs to improve his ability to communicate his vision to the people. He must improve his expression of empathy with the American people. In effect, he must learn from the Ancient Greeks.