Skip to main content

Obama's speech a model of persuasion

By David Kusnet, Special to CNN
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed September 11, 2013
President Barack Obama approaches the podium in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, September 10, for a speech addressing the nation on the justification for possible military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The regime is accused of launching a horrific chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people. President Barack Obama approaches the podium in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, September 10, for a speech addressing the nation on the justification for possible military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The regime is accused of launching a horrific chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people.
HIDE CAPTION
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Kusnet: Barack Obama's Syria speech changed minds with its masterly execution
  • He says it's instructive: He identified with his audience, war-weary but open-minded
  • He says he clearly explained risks chemical weapons pose to all, and why he went to Congress
  • Kusnet: He anticipated and answered questions, invoked American exceptionalism

Editor's note: David Kusnet was President Bill Clinton's chief speechwriter from 1992 through 1994. He is the senior writer and a principal at the Podesta Group, a government relations and public relations firm.

(CNN) -- Sixty-one percent of Americans polled, who watched President Obama's prime-time speech, told CNN that they support his policy towards Syria.

Since some surveys showed as much as two-thirds opposition to military action against Syria in the days before the speech, the poll suggests that he did what presidents rarely do: change people's minds, if only temporarily.

Read the speech

How did he do it? In only 15 minutes, President Obama made his points, simply and straightforwardly. Anyone arguing a controversial case in the court of public opinion can learn from what he said and how he said it:

David Kusnet
David Kusnet

Identifying with the audience. Addressing a war-weary public, President Obama began by saying that he had "resisted calls for military action" in Syria before "Assad's government gassed to death over a thousand people." The message: The terrible event that changed my mind should change yours, too.

Opinion: Obama's speech won't sell Americans on Syria

Telling a story. President Obama told how the world community declared chemical weapons "off limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war." His story began with the deadly use of gas in the trenches in World War I and continued with the Nazi use of poison gas in the Holocaust.

Bringing it home. Having made the human rights case, President Obama explained why chemical weapons threaten Americans. If Assad isn't punished, "our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield." Terrorists could get these weapons and use them against civilians. Iran could be emboldened to build nuclear weapons.

Obama: Military strike will deter Syria
Santorum: No moral obligation to strike
Jones: We agreed, and world didn't end
Analysis on Obama's Syria speech

Invoking the American system. Some opponents warn he's willfully starting a new war. Others call him indecisive because he delayed military action. President Obama said he's taking the debate to Congress, even though he maintains he doesn't have to, because "our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress."

Obama seeks support for attacking Syria while pursuing diplomacy

Answering questions. Like the FAQs on a website, much of the speech answered questions that President Obama said members of Congress and private citizens have asked him, such as "Won't this put us on a slippery slope to another war?" President Reagan also made a point of answering questions that people had asked in their letters to him. In his address to a Joint Session of Congress after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush answered questions, as did Winston Churchill in his radio talks during World War II.

Offering hopeful news. Towards the end of a speech that could have been completed several days earlier, President Obama discussed the latest developments surrounding the Russian proposal that Syria turn over its weapons to international authorities. Yes, the transition sounded choppy, but listeners care more about encouraging news than elegant rhetoric.

Opinion: Speech aims to keep heat on Syria

Appealing to American patriotism. President Obama said America is "different" because we right wrongs when we can. Answering the common criticism that he doesn't believe in "American Exceptionalism," he concluded, "That's what makes America exceptional... Let us never lose sight of that essential truth."

With down-to-earth arguments and a lofty conclusion, last night's speech was a model of how to turn an audience around, point by point.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of David Kusnet.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT