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Deconstructing Obama's oratorical skills

He can be a bit professorial, but he's part Reagan, part FDR, and maybe a lot of Teddy Roosevelt.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2009

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference, Tuesday, March 24, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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There is much to be said about Barack Obama's oratorical skills. Much already has been, good and bad. Journalists launch their opinions and observations into the public airwaves and float them out into the cybernetic sea for whomever cares to fish them out. Mr. Obama's rhetoric is high octane fuel for debate among academics, political operatives, plain ordinary folk interested in knowing what's going on.

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In February, a columnist wrote in the New York Sun of how he had come away from a meeting with Obama "deeply impressed by his intelligence, forceful language," after which the writer changed his mind, and decided the new president was "largely a stage presence," another pol spewing promises unlikely to be kept.

Around the same time another pundit, this one on Slate, the online magazine, declared Obama's speeches "criminally short on specifics," and then cited a paper by an academic who "unpeeled" his speeches and claimed to have found a clue to his method: to tie his own life experience to various American icons, like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., even Ronald Reagan.

David Frum, a conservative speechwriter for George Bush, inventor of the phrase "axis of evil," sees in Obama "an old fashioned speechmaker, one who is well prepared and who addresses his audience formally. His strength is in the set piece."

His weakness? "He is lost in the modern, more free-wheeling sort of debate."

To Mr. Frum, Obama won the presidency owing to the economic crisis that surfaced last year; his speeches helped him little.

Many who work and play in the varied fields of politics who dislike Obama are inclined, for some odd reason, to attack him at his strongest point: his manifest talent for speech-making.

"People have been suspicious of rhetoric since Plato's time," says the writer and scholar, Garry Wills. "Some distrust Obama as a guy who just makes pretty speeches."

But his speeches, Mr. Wills says, are hardly prettified, nor are they full of mesmerizing tricks and rhetorical flourishes; nor, as many think, "are they out of the black church culture of oratory, which produced Dr. King, Jesse Jackson and others like that."

"Obama is professorial," says Wills. "His speeches manifest his time as a teacher."

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