Opinionista Marelise Van Der Merwe 9 July 2013

Dear Mr President, we need to trust you

Whatever you happen to think of Barack Obama, the man can deliver a speech. It’s a skill that our own president would benefit from, if only to win his people’s trust.

Dear Mr President,

I know you’ve been having a bad time of it. Ok, so you’ve had a bad time of it quite a few times during your tenure as president, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment. If nothing else, of late you were jointly overshadowed by the world’s most beloved freedom fighter and the world’s most powerful man. And any attention you and yours are getting is usually just those pesky journalists asking for more updates on Madiba, no matter how many times your people try to explain the distinction between “critical”, “very critical”, “a little less critical” and “extra-wextra-sooper-delooper critical”. At least Mandla-the-gravedigger is drawing some of the fire off you and your government.

I know it can’t be easy when people keep bitching that you’re corrupt or making jokes about your R200-million padlocks. And then there are those silly surveys saying that people’s faith in you is decreasing or that fewer young people will vote for you. Dear Lord, you even have to contend with young Julius coming back onto the scene and then nogals apologising to you live on air, in a so that if you say anything about him you’ll look like a big meanie. (Genius move, Juju, by the way.)

So I get it. It’s not easy. And, despite being a bloody agent by trade, I’m actually pretty conservative in some ways. I believe that a person should be respectful to the president, even criticising him, and you’d certainly never catch me flipping the bird to one of your convoys. Which is why I’m writing you this in the spirit of helpfulness.

You see, Mr President, I was one of the lucky journalists present at President Barack Obama’s keynote address at the University of Cape Town. And just between you and me, I went there all armed with defensive mantras like “drones” and “spying” and “Guantanamo Bay”. I had come over all Debra Patta and was muttering all these keywords to myself and getting awfully cross about privacy and by the time I got to the auditorium, I was ready to tell him to just keep his listening to a polite level and point those bak-oortjies in another direction. (You know how we are in Cape Town; we name people after their most prominent physical attribute. It’s not malicious; just a fond ease of reference. If he and Michelle had made it into the Flats they’d have come out as “Ore” and “Rokkies” Obama with a nice hot koesuster in each hand and a long story about Haleema Antie’s smoortjie. And maybe the ou in their entourage that didn’t have a prominent body part, he would just be “Baksteen”.)

Anyway, the point is, I was all ready for battle. And then something strange happened. He started to talk, and I was completely won over. With apologies to Jerry Maguire, he had me at howzit. He is honestly – and I’m not pulling your leg, now – the most charismatic man I have ever seen. I used to think people who said Hitler was charismatic were stupid – like, how dumb must you be to be taken in by some bloke with a silly snorretjie telling you to massacre the Jews? But I’m telling you, I’m sold on charisma now. I used to consider myself a pretty hard nut to crack and most people’s attempts to charm me simply left me irritated. I prefer people to be real. But things have changed.

And that’s just it, Mr President. It’s something I have to explain to you at a bit more length, this feeling of realness. When Obama was talking, I fell under a kind of spell. I know you’re not the kind of bloke to read Twilight – and our country is in serious trouble if you are – but it was seriously almost like when one of the vamps puts a glamour on you and you have no idea what just happened, but Oh my God, they are beautiful and you love them a little and it sounds so good when they are talking and wtf, are those sparkles? Or, to give an example closer to home, it is like when you’re on a date with a bit of a player and you know he’s married but when he’s talking to you he’s focusing on just you and you feel like the centre of the universe and all of a sudden you forget that yesterday you were telling someone he was a smarmy bugger and next thing you know you’re in a bright red pudding of a dress cutting the cake with the other First Ladies. Anyway. I digress.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on just why Obama is such a brilliant politician. Why he can convince the skeptics and have half the hard-nosed camera-mongers in a swoon, despite their often-valid criticisms. And I’ve come up with a few key points that I’d like to share with you. Because – and I’m not just sucking up, now – I really believe our country will be better off the more faith it has in its president. I believe it’s good for unity and strength – a bit like a functional family – if we all have the boss’ back. Within reason, of course. But nobody can deny that it’s good for us as a nation to have World Cup moments or to take a proud walk down the many Nelson Mandela Avenues throughout the country. It was healthy for us to have a president we were proud of.

So I want us to be proud of you, Mr President, even in the unlikely event that you’re not around much longer. You need to learn to talk to people, seriously. I’m not saying you have to be Obama, but by gum, you can take a leaf out of his book. And the first thing you can do is act real. I’m not even saying you have to be real. It’ll help if you even just look real. Listen carefully to Obama’s speeches. You’ll notice he throws in these deeply personal little details, like how much he loves his wife or how he really felt when he was showing his daughters Robben Island. He gets pretty emotional and what he says has the unmistakable ring of sincerity. It’s hard not to clap in the face of that kind of honesty.

But here’s the trick: he sucks you in with the realness, and then when you’re off guard, he throws in the PR speak. He did it on Sunday, where he delivered a hell of a speech that had many of us whistling and me myself putting a patriotic hand on my chest – and then casually threw in a comment about the US military presence in Africa. “We put muscle behind African efforts,” he said. And moved swiftly along, while we were still on his side.

I don’t want you to get the impression I’m saying Obama’s a big faker. Actually, I like him – quite a lot – I just treat any politician with a healthy and analytical skepticism, and I think you should too. You need to analyse Obama’s speeches and ask yourself why they work. And the first thing he has on you is this feeling of realness. With all due respect, when I listen to you, I feel like you are using ten-foot words with the express written purpose of taking us all further and further from the truth. Whether this is the case or not, it sure as heck doesn’t make us trust you. You wrap up your meaning in words that can’t be penetrated. The words take us further away instead of bringing us closer.

Something else Obama does, that you should do too: he shares. He really does make his audience feel like he’s talking to each individual alone, and it’s because he tells you stuff that makes you feel he’s human. He relates little anecdotes and mentions the bands you love at strategic points. He talks very conversationally about his family and comes out and addresses problems directly (well, ok, some things. Not all things.) But nonetheless he makes you his buddy – confides in you. He makes you feel like he trusts you and you automatically trust him back.

And this, Mr President, is something I can emphatically state you do not do. You seem so secretive – whether it’s about a corruption scandal or the health of Mandela or your own damn choice of socks – we feel like we don’t know you. You’re not our buddy. Sure, you have great populist appeal and you have a hell of a smile when you’re visiting your fans in person. But when you deliver a speech, we never feel you’re telling us everything. (Hint: you don’t actually have to tell us everything. You just have to sound like you do.)

The next thing is that he’s word-perfect. Not only does he drum up a vast amount of general knowledge that actually makes you believe he knows your country – and you – better than you do, he does it without once glancing at notes. He stares out thoughtfully over the nation and delivers a perfect articulation of everything you could possibly need to reassure you. (Emphasis on ‘reassure’, Mr President. Not ‘make more anxious through denials and conflicting information’. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s there.)

And lastly, he knows how to wear power. Take special note of this, Mr President: you never catch him on the defensive or playing the martyr. Even when he’s criticised vehemently. For example, he told us on Sunday that the US “would not apologise” for its essentially paternalistic stance. He said it pleasantly, but with a winning level of conviction. No complaints of victimisation, just a show of strength and confidence. Certainly no media-bashing. And it won every darn one of us over.

Maybe all of this is just an elaborately cynical view brought on by too much time in the PR and marketing industry. But I really believe what you look – and sound like – is easily as important as what you do. And genugtig, Obama is the consummate professional in that respect. So for the love of God, Mr President, recognise that you’re not cloaked in Mandela’s natural saintliness. Being who he was as the president, he could afford to stumble a little over the spoken word and everyone would love him anyway. You, I’m sorry to say, cannot. DM


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