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