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Media and Crisis Management

Obama and the Pope

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Presentations: Obama and the PopeCritical communications

Communications taketh and giveth. We have seen both recently (April 2008) with Barack Obama’s Philadelphia debate and Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S.

First Obama: a communicator rarely seen on the national political stage.  Nevertheless, in my humble opinion he should add one vital arrow to his verbal arsenal.  With it I believe he can be even more persuasive with fence-sitting voters in his attempt to secure the Democratic nomination and perhaps the Presidency.

Every so often he should unleash some unvarnished, unrehearsed, authentic oratorical fire when others attack him in person: especially in debates.  ABC News moderators harangued Obama in Philadelphia about peripheral but signal matters like his former pastor’s remarks and Obama’s own characterization of bitter Americans as clinging to religion and guns. I was puzzled by his low-key response to these issues he’d addressed previously and often.  He said to anchor Gibson, “”Charlie, I’ve discussed this.”  Also, “It’s not the first time I made a misstatement that was mangled up, and it won’t be the last.”

Those quotes look good in print but during the actual debate I found them tepidly delivered.  I began saying to myself, “C’mon, Barack, don’t let them get away with that. Tell them, ‘Hold on, Charlie.  Don’t you guys have something more important to talk about like lost jobs, rising gas prices, Iraq, global warming, immigration, and record foreclosures?’” At the risk of hyperbole here, where was Obama’s outrage?  Passion?  Where was the “grab ‘em by the throat” retort?

I thought of the 1988 presidential debate at Wake Forest when a reporter asked candidate Michael Dukakis whether he would favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife.  Showing no emotion toward this horrific scenario, Dukakis answered with a coldness that killed him in the campaign.  Obama is anything but cold, he’s cool.  Sometimes too cool.  I think many want to see what really gets Obama going.  What gets him mad?  What stokes him?  When confronted can he shove back?

During the 1980 campaign the normally placid Ronald Reagan heard someone threaten to turn off his microphone.  Reagan angrily shouted, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”  He got great applause and press.  Even opponent Hillary Clinton has challenged moderators for always asking her the first question, or, in another debate, ignoring her.

Obama prides himself as a conciliator who rises above the old politics.  I like his deliberateness. But occasionally he should sharpen his rhetoric.  Let the heat fly.  It would be reassuring. Show the tough side. It would be reassuring in this tough world.

His April 29 news conference counterattacking his persistently divisive former pastor, when Obama used stronger words like “ridiculous”, “appalling”, and “antithetical… to what I am about” to describe Rev. Jeremiah Wright were a step in the right direction.

Now to the Pope’s stunning visit.   When was the last time you saw a leader so fully embrace a crisis that cuts to the core of his institution, face it, and single-handedly shift the world view?   Repeatedly throughout his stay he shouldered responsibility for the priest sex abuse that has festered for years in his church.  He attributed “deep shame”, “enormous pain”, and “gravely immoral behavior” to the scandal that he said was “badly mishandled”.  He pledged to keep out pedophile priests and encouraged healing and reconciliation.

His deeds spoke loudest when he met victims and let each talk individually to him.

We anticipated Pope Benedict to set a moral tone, but establishing a benchmark for laying to rest a horror that has haunted the Catholic Church?  That was unexpected, inspirational, and merciful.

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