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.

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

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.

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."

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."

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.

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