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Obama's Leadership Brings Few Hails To The Chief

JACKI LYDEN, host: As we just heard, Republican presidential candidates are working to position themselves for November of 2012. But some say the man currently in the Oval Office seems to be losing his footing. Just over a week ago, Standard & Poor's lowered the U.S. credit rating. On Monday, President Obama spoke to the nation.

President BARACK OBAMA: Markets will rise and fall, but this is the United States of America. No matter what some agency may say, we've always been, and always will be, a AAA country.

LYDEN: This speech brought forth a torrent of commentary on the president's performance and his ability - or not - to outline a strong program to move the country forward. And that's coming from his supporters. Joining us now is Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, and a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton. Thank you very much for coming in.

TED WIDMER: My pleasure, Jacki.

LYDEN: What's wrong with the speech that we just heard from President Obama? When I say he was also criticized by his supporters, I mean, he was. You can hardly read a pundit without saying that Obama is weaker, stumbling, doesn't seem to know what he wants to say. He was trying to reassure America, but it didn't matter.

WIDMER: The soundbite was bad. It didn't offer a compelling counter-argument. It just said: That downgrade hurt our feelings, but we're still a very important country in the world. It just wasn't dramatic enough. It didn't have enough facts behind it. It hardly did anything to move the conversation forward.

LYDEN: Did you note that change in the president's tone? On Thursday in Holland, Michigan, he attacked Congress, didn't he?

OBAMA: It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. You've got to let Congress know. You've got to tell them you've had enough of the theatrics. You've had enough of the politics. Stop sending out press releases; start passing some bills that we all know will help our economy right now. That's what they need to do. They've got to hear from you.

(Soundbite of applause)

WIDMER: Yes. That was refreshing. He's frustrated and maybe even angry. But he was in attack mode, and that was good. One of the frustrating things for many of his supporters during the negotiations over the debt ceiling was his refusal to go into attack mode. And he even over and over again, said he understood the other side's need to disagree with him. And that was a troubling negotiating strategy. I think he might have received more of what he wanted had he threatened the other side a little bit more effectively.

LYDEN: If you were his speechwriter now, what kind of speech would you craft for the moment?

WIDMER: I think we all need a kind of Frank Capra narrative. In one movie after another, Mr. Deeds or Mr. Smith goes to Washington. There is a hero who speaks up in a way that's very compelling and very honest. And I think we need a story that restores our faith in the U.S. government and doesn't make it seem, by itself, a negative force in American life.

LYDEN: You know, it's interesting what you say about story. Stories are really important for administrations to tell.

WIDMER: They absolutely are. They were important in the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and in, really, every great communication strategy - including Ronald Reagan's - core narratives were very, very important. And I think President Obama has done a lot of good in his few years. He probably has done more than most people realize, but there hasn't been a successful core narrative that's gotten out there.

LYDEN: Ted Widmer is the director of the John Carter Brown Memorial Library in Providence, Rhode Island, and the editor of "American Speeches," a collection of presidents' speeches from the Library of America. He joined us from New York. Ted Widmer, thank you.

WIDMER: My pleasure, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.