By Jefferson Flanders

Already President Barack Obama is showing the ability to adapt his communication style to the audience, occasion, and purpose. Will history see him as the Great Adaptive Communicator?

It’s now conventional wisdom that Obama can deliver a brilliant set speech, although he has often toned down the soaring rhetoric when it doesn’t suit his political ends (witness his somber and workmanlike Inaugural Address). Despite mixed reviews from media critics, the new President has quickly mastered the prime-time news conference, one which plagued many of his predecessors in the White House. Where Obama has struggled, surprisingly, is in less formal settings where he lets his guard down (for example, the Jay Leno Special Olympics kerfuffle or Obama’s “gallows humor” joviality on “60 Minutes”).

Some conservative pundits have mocked Obama for his reliance on the teleprompter in public appearances, but his recent news conferences prove the President can think quite well on his feet without a canned script. He knows he gives a smoother, more telegenic performance with the teleprompter, and that’s why he turns to the device.

I think Obama will prove to be a master of presidential news conferences, as well. Unlike many of his Republican predecessors, he doesn’t disdain the press (or at least openly show that he does), and he isn’t intimidated by the prospect of fielding questions.

What Obama has apparently realized is that the President can control and shape a East Room news conference to his liking. He can pick and choose the questioners. He can slow down the pace of the proceedings by stretching out his answers (which meant just 13 questions in his last hour-long press conference). He can ignore the intent of any given question and, even when pressed on it in a follow-up, always has the last word. And if he keeps his emotions in check, and sticks to his message, he can avoid any “gotcha” moments.

The media hopes for something newsworthy from a presidential “presser”—a dramatic revelation, an insight into the president’s thinking, a policy shift. They are disappointed when that doesn’t happen. Obama’s performance at his last formal news conference (before leaving for the G20) was panned as “professorial” by many in the mainstream media. Obama sounded “like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell” according to Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. True, Obama largely repeated his administration’s talking points on the economy, but that doesn’t mean the news conference wasn’t a success—from a presidential perspective.

I’d argue that Obama’s professorial style worked quite well: he projected the three C’s—confidence, competence, and calmness—which is what a national leader must project during troubled times. What about substance? Obama’s long, discursive answers—which annoyed many commentators—signaled that he has a detailed grasp of economic policy, which was enough for his audience—the average voter worried about his or her job and future—if not for Beltway journalists.
Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved
Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

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