Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Don't Stop Believin'

Either President Obama is one of the best communicators we've had in the Oval Office or one of the worst. His meteoric rise was marked by several speeches praised for their rhetorical power, starting with his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

But when he cuts taxes for 95% of American households, few even notice. For some reason, he can't get the word out; his speeches don't stick. Health care, stimulus packages, his place of birth---the more he talks about these topics, the less people seem to get it.

When Obama fights off falsehoods and accusations, he strengthens them. Selective exposure may be stronger than rhetoric.

A post-election American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that 60% of Americans feel their religious values differ from Obama's, even though Obama has taken great pains to make public confession of his faith as a mainline Christian who believes in "the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ," as he told Christianity Today in 2008. And still, between 2008 and 2010, the percent of U.S. citizens who think Obama is Muslim rose from 12% to 18%. (A Newsweek poll puts the number at 24%.)

We should be quick to argue that it doesn't matter whether Obama is Muslim or not, but that's not the point. The point is that we may be tempted to assume that Obama has a rhetorical challenge on his hands, one that he must address as we all make our (long . . . torturous . . . tedious . . . vitriolic . . . insipid . . . ) way to the 2012 presidential election. Because of the normative power of the God strategy (see this post), a president cannot afford to stray too far from the religious identity required of the commander in chief.

However, considering the research on cognitive dissonance, selection, and deflection, it could also be argued that those people who believe Obama is Muslim aren't really his rhetorical problem at all. If you're willing to keep on believing something that has been proven false---over and over and over again---then you're rhetoric-proof.

I was sorely tempted here to embed a YouTube video of Journey singing "Don't Stop Believin'," but I think I've made the point.

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