The sight of a US President announcing the death of a terrorist leader has been a staple of American politics for the past 11 years.
The words of each president and their manners on the podium reveal a lot about the kind of leaders that former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump were trying to be, and in the case of President Joe Biden, trying to be.
This week, Biden announced that the US had killed al Qaeda leader Aiman al-Zawahiri in Kabul over the weekend.
In 2019, Trump revealed that the US had killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And in 2011, Obama announced to the American people that Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, had been killed.
In the days following Biden’s announcement, edited videos comparing speeches by Biden, Obama and Trump have surfaced online. Although some of the videos were created to cast certain leaders in a bad light, these three speeches are worth analyzing, according to historians and public speaking experts who spoke to NPR.
If you look closely at each speech, their performance, even down to the words used in each speech, offers a little insight into each man, these experts said.
Although they are very different characters, there are striking similarities, said Thomas Schwartz, a professor of history, political science and European studies at Vanderbilt University.
The fact that Obama, Trump and Biden took center stage to announce someone else’s execution was “a little bit gory,” Schwartz said.
“But they recognize that there is domestic gain in taking down terrorist leaders and they want to claim it,” he added.
Every President makes a special point in his speech to say so you directed the military and intelligence officers to act on the information provided you gave the orders, Schwartz said. After all, everyone wants to maintain their leadership on the global stage, he said.
“Under all of this, presidents are trying to justify themselves politically and gain something politically,” Schwartz said. “So I think our comparison is probably justified at that level, even if it also reminds people on stylistic things what they liked and didn’t like about different presidents.”
Obama’s speech on bin Laden is of great importance
Every expert who spoke to NPR agreed: Obama’s speech was iconic. Although Trump and Biden eliminated key terrorist leaders, the gravity of bin Laden’s assassination is unmatched. To some extent, Trump and Biden even attempted to emulate Obama’s Bin Laden speech, Schwartz said.
“Bin Laden, of course, was someone who was known in a way that the other two men weren’t,” said Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington. “So it was kind of an extraordinary historical moment and something that’s bigger than the other two in a way because it was bin Laden.”
O’Mara noted that nearly a decade after the attacks, Obama took the time to acknowledge the emotions for the victims of 9/11.
“Obama is speaking almost within a decade of 9/11, so it’s a lot rawer,” she said.
Obama said in a measured and somber tone in his nine-minute speech, “It has been almost 10 years since a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history.”
He continued: “Yet we know that the worst pictures are the ones the world hasn’t seen. The empty seat at the dining table. Children forced to grow up without their mother or father. Parents who would never do it know the feeling of hugging their child. Almost 3,000 citizens taken from us leave a gaping hole in our hearts.”
Obama also carefully described how the White House obtained information about bin Laden and a brief description of the steps special forces took to kill him.
“There’s no question that watching Obama was a reminder of how slow-paced and almost academic his style could be when discussing things,” Schwartz noted.
Trump rejects traditional presidential rhetoric
Former President Trump took a very different approach when he announced the execution of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019.
Taking a moment to analyze Trump’s speech in comparison to Obama and Biden offers “a glimpse of a lot of things,” O’Mara said.
“In a very blunt way, it’s a window into how Trump was such a very different president — and not just different from the two men who were on either side of him, but modern presidents in general,” she said. “If you call back and look at the presidential oratorio by the presidents of both parties, it’s very different not only in tone but also in the nature of the information conveyed.”
Trump, known for lengthy rally speeches during his presidency, spoke much longer than Obama or Biden in that announcement. His first speech lasted over eight minutes, but he spent an additional 40 minutes answering reporters’ questions.
And with his usual flair, Trump spoke about the raid in dramatic detail, using emotional language to describe both al-Baghdadi and the way he died.
“No personnel was lost in the operation, while large numbers of Baghdadi’s fighters and comrades were killed with him. He died after walking down a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming the whole way,” Trump said.
He went on to describe the operation, saying: “The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his final moments in utter fear, in utter panic and fear, terrified of the American forces coming his way. “
This stems from Trump’s background, not in politics but as a businessman and reality TV star, these experts noted.
“One of the things that was very notable about Trump’s presidential rhetoric was that he claimed he didn’t want to use it, he said he didn’t want to be a presidential candidate,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric and a professor at the U.S. University of Texas A&M University. “He thought that was a presidential candidate [style] was boring and lame, and he thought he won the presidency by being dynamic and interesting. And I think that’s reflected very clearly.”
In comparison, Biden and Obama made very somber speeches, she said.
Biden is trying to project strength
Biden is known for struggling with mistakes and mistakes in speeches. He has even sometimes said the opposite of what he means, as noted by a New York Times Piece during the 2020 presidential campaign.
Schwartz said Biden (like the two presidents before him) wanted to communicate strength and power when he announced the killing of al-Zawahiri.
Both Obama and Biden showed restraint in the language and description used to explain the killings of al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, Mercieca said.
Both men used the President’s office to sound official and speak out about the justice due to the victims of 9/11.
Biden said of al-Zawahiri, “He carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American military personnel, American diplomats, and American interests from al-Qaeda — the leader.”
He added: “Now justice has been brought about and this terrorist leader is no more.”
Presidents do this to “highlight what may be a very blatant incident, which is that the United States took revenge and murdered someone else,” Mercieca said.
“What Donald Trump did was the opposite. He wasn’t trying to overdo it,” she said. “Instead, he called the person a ‘dog,’ describing very roughly how they died and what it meant.”