Obama's Speech: Good & Bad

We writers, especially we writers who focus on politics, appreciate fine speechwriting. Peggy Noonan and Rick Hertzberg are two of my favorite former presidential speechwriters. And, it would be impossible for any wordsmith not to admire President Obama’s speechwriter, Jon Favreau, who has penned some memorable lines for his boss.

In the past few days, the White House has clearly been looking for the right way to speak about the foiled terrorist attack on Christmas Day. Yesterday, the President gave what was both his best and worst stab at it.


The best part of his late afternoon address was the section where he echoed an argument we have made in these pages, namely that the terrorists win if we allow ourselves to overturn our standards of civilization. "Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans," the president said. "Because great and proud nations don’t hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want." Indeed, that is who our adversaries are: Mistrustful suspicious people who look to modernity as a threat to their medieval way of life. For all my problems with modernity, and they are many and some of them are indelible, ours is a civilization that adjudicates its differences by means of the ballot not the bullet, and that confronts its difficulties with reason not with zealotry.

But, President Obama also employed one of the most useless phrases in the current political lexicon: "I take responsibility." This phrase was once a proud expression of the idea of responsible government, and it was accompanied by a letter of resignation. In parliamentary systems, cabinet ministers take responsibility by resigning when something bad happens on their watch, whether they are the actual cause of the bad thing or not. The idea is that responsible government, accountable not just to the electorate but to the facts, is more important than precise calculations of blame.

In the past twenty years, of course, "I take responsibility" has been a way to end discussion and divert attention. After the raid in Waco, Texas in 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno "took responsibility" for the failure to protect innocent lives, but there was no apparent consequence to the assumption of responsibility. That is not responsibility. That is a dodge. President Obama is well advised to avoid this phrase in the future except to commend it to those who are about to tender their resignation.

This useless phrase is different from the President’s invocation of a line first uttered by Harry Truman, "the buck stops here." Yes it does. If government fails to execute a policy, or executes the wrong policy, in anyway, it is in some sense the responsibility of the chief executive. He cannot dodge, but his accountability will be meted out at the next election. In the meantime, it is critical to the exercise of the responsibility the voters gave him in the last election that he fire those who mess up. Yes, the problem in the current case may have been systemic, but someone is responsible for those systems, and ultimately it is the President himself and the people he appoints who must fix them and fix them fast.

One of the difficulties in addressing the Christmas Day bombing is that anytime we are dealing with an intelligence failure, there is much that cannot be said. We do not want our adversaries to know our strategies or tactics, still less how those strategies or tactics have failed. "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies," Churchill once observed with his characteristic ability to turn a phrase. This conflicts with the openness and transparency that is an obvious and important value in a free and democratic society. Unlike the assigning of responsibility, this is a tension with which every President and Prime Minister must live. And, his speechwriters deserve a bonus if they can find a way to give expression to that tension.

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John Sheffield
9 years ago
As someone who has followed the speech writing of Jon Favreau since his day at Holy Cross, I always do a transcript from the video of any speech from President Barack Obama as well as study and keep the White House transcript.

To pen an article about the good and bad of a speech from The President, who works with Jon Favreau closely on speeches, it amazes me that you seem to be inaccurate with you claim of what is bad. I find what The President said as clear and correct and I quote.

''Moreover, I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer, for ultimately, the buck stops with me. As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people, and when the system fails, it is my responsibility.''

Perhaps Michael you will be humble to give your further comment and if wrong? take responsibility, thanks with regards.
9 years ago
In the press briefing immediately following the speech, Mr. Gibbs said that the President said he takes responsibility. The President, in the passage two commentators cite, says as much. He did not put the words in the same order, nor did I check to make sure that Atty. Gen. Reno used the words in the same order. I know that wordsmiths are picky. But, people, please. The point still holds - no matter how you say it, if you are going to take responsibility, or say a responsibility is "my" responsibility there should be some kind of apparent consequence and in this instance the resignation of those officials who messed up, or those responsible for the systems that messed up, is the appropriate form responsibility takes in a responsible government.
John Sheffield
9 years ago
Michael, when someone writes an article would it not be right to check the facts first, I do not accept that it does not matter what order words are said.

I feel we will have to disagree, in your case it seems your response is more just a defence for incorrect commenting to purely save face.
9 years ago
I have heard thoughtful commentary in the past few days that leads me to believe there should not be a necessary link between taking responsibility and resigning.  The rationale I heard has to do with the expertise and knowledge of history that would be lost to an already sorely tried intelligence community.  It seems to me that the President or appropriate Cabinet members should be allowed the judgment about what the greater good requires.  
Catherine Jayjack
9 years ago
I have heard countless news analyst dissections of the event and of the President's speech, and more than one person asking, well, who should be fired as if someone must be fired to solve the problem.  Aside from the loss of expertise and knowledge mentioned above, I don't agree that "it is critical to the exercise of the responsibility the voters gave him in the last election that he fire those who mess up."  If it is critical to fix these problems and fix them fast it is important that those responsible learn from their mistakes, and then do everything possible systemically to fulfill their responsibilities.  You can't just keep demanding people's heads every time a terrorist and his handlers think up a new way to beat the system.
Helena Loflin
9 years ago
Since Condoleesa Rice wasn't fired, but was rewarded for her failure to protect our country by being appointed to State, then no one needs to be fired for not connecting the dots regarding the Christmas Day foiled terrorist attempt.
9 years ago
Oratory only gets one but so far. If we are attcked, with success, words will not save him.
9 years ago
"Oratory only gets one but so far" may be right Maria, but it demonstrates clearly the thinking of someone and that gives confidence to those who listen, Oratory as well as speech writing is a Gift, just like an author.
John Hayes
9 years ago
What he said (from my recollection and the transcript at the whitehouse.gov site) was:
"Moreover, I am less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer.  For ultimately, the buck stops with me.  As President, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people.  And when the system fails, it is my responsibility."
Seems OK to me - and different from "I take responsibility" 


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