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.
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Richard Macksey, a humanities professor at Johns Hopkins University, expert on rhetoric, literary theory, and criticism, has identified his own clues to the Obama success: "He speaks in whole sentences. His body language gives the impression of relaxation. He listens."Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Macksey adds: "He's quick to admit when he's made a mistake. He is not quick to anger; his rhetoric is empty of fire and brimstone."
Obama, when it comes to giving speeches, has been likened to John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, F.D.R., even Abraham Lincoln. One Republican strategist, Frank Luntz, even said on network television, maybe in jest, "It's Bobby Kennedy he's channeling."
Well, if Bobby Kennedy, why not Theodore Roosevelt, a personage whose name is not often found among those others with whom Obama is compared?
It ought to be, says Jeffrey Tulis, author of "The Rhetorical Presidency." Mr. Tulis believes "Too much attention is often given to the style of oratory, the delivery of the speaker, the cadences of the speech. Obama is impressive in those dimensions, but what really carries him is the substance of his oratory."
"If you have ever attended an Obama rally, you might have been surprised how little the powerful effect he had on his audience was due to so-called 'charisma,' and how much it was due to his treating his audience like adults capable of understanding an argument," he says.
Tulis associates Obama with Teddy Roosevelt, not so much for the similarity of their rhetorical styles, but more for the similarity of the political situations they each encountered as president.
Obama and Teddy Roosevelt, he says, "adopted moderation and pragmatic policies as their central mode or theme; each faced a serious threat to the functioning of the capitalist order, and each urged policies to fortify capitalism by modifying it with government regulation. Each claimed their policies were necessary for the long-term health of capitalism itself."
"The form and content of the rhetoric of railroad regulation and trust busting to modify unfair shipping rates," initiated by Roosevelt in 1906, "is almost identical to that for banking regulation and financial sector reform for Obama," says Tulis.
Strong forces gathered to block the efforts of both men: those of big business against Roosevelt, the Republican Party against Obama.
Roosevelt resorted to strong, aggressive oratory, shocking, possibly dangerous for his time. (Twenty years earlier, President Andrew Johnson was impeached, in part, for his vituperative rhetoric, which shamed the presidency. But T.R. got his way.)
Obama continues to deploy his verbal skills and to press, more gently, perhaps, for his own policies. He has advantages over the 26th president: He is unlikely to be impeached, no matter what he says. And he has a softer voice, unlike Roosevelt's, which was squeaky.