Speechmaking Isn’t Governing

A good speech doesn’t make Michelle Obama a formidable presidential contender.

Dilma Rousseff Barack Obama
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff welcomes her American counterpart, Barack Obama, and his family in Brasília, March 19, 2011 (White House/Pete Souza)

American political culture puts too much importance on oratory.

Michelle Obama, the wife of former president Barack Obama, gave a good speech to the Democratic National Convention, held virtually this year, on Monday night and even intelligent commentators suggest she would make a “formidable” presidential candidate in 2024.

No matter that Obama has never held elected office or so much as contested an election.

Communication is an important part of the job of any politician, but it’s not the job. It’s a lesson Michelle’s husband learned in 2009.

Cautionary tale

Barack Obama rose to national prominence on the back of a soaring convention speech in 2004 and was elected president after serving just four years in the Senate. Unaccustomed to dealmaking, he relied on more experienced party leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, to get his signature health reforms through Congress. He tasked his vice president, Joe Biden, with negotiating an economic recovery program with Republicans.

There was only so much they could do. Obama’s inexperience conspired with right-wing obstructionism to kill opportunities for bipartisan entitlement and tax reform.

Voters punished Democrats in 2010. The party suffered its worst congressional election defeat since 1938.

Obama was a better president in his second term. Wouldn’t four or eight more years in the Senate have prepared him better for the job?


Whether Biden wins in November or not, his vice presidential candidate, Kamala Harris of California, will be a favorite next time. A former prosecutor, attorney general and senator, she has ample political experience. She has demonstrated that she can raise big money and she has proved herself on the debate stage.

Other Democratic women with political experience and national profile include Karen Bass, the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus; Tammy Duckworth, an Army veteran and Illinois senator; and Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan.

Put them on the shortlist for the next presidential nomination.