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 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT