Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Two Mediocre Obama Inaugural Addresses

It seems President Obama, famed orator, is generally a mediocre speaker. That might not be the popular image of our president, but his speeches have not left a lasting impression on scholars. Rhetoricians, historians, and political scientists seem to agree that for an excellent speaker, technically, the president has yet to deliver a speech that will be recited by future generations. Not even a great line has taken hold. Why is that?

Writes David Ignatius for the Washington Post:
The only voice that really soared at midday was Beyonce's, while singing the national anthem. President Barack Obama's second inaugural address, by contrast, was flat, partisan and surprisingly pedestrian—more a laundry list of preferred political programs than a vision for a divided America and disoriented world.
ABC News reminds us the first Obama inaugural was uninspiring, too. It was the moment that mattered, but the president delivered a generic speech four years ago.
Historians seem to like President Obama's first inaugural address, delivered four years ago, but some speechwriters don't, as NPR recently noted. Obama's first address didn't have a signature line, something the best inaugural addresses often do.
NPR's story on Obama's inaugural addresses reminds us that he simply doesn't "wow" the crowd with words. Obama's power is pure charisma, something beyond the words. Listen to the audiences at his speeches, the "shout-outs" to the president. He is a star, a celebrity. He doesn't need to give great speeches, only "good enough" speeches.

I've shown Obama speeches to my classes, asking them to note specific facts and then verify those facts. In one instance, we watched a five minute segment of a speech delivered at another college campus. Five minutes into the speech, a student asked, "When will there be any facts?" I explained generalizations are common in political stump speeches. The student responded, "Until you asked us to write down facts, I just assumed he was a master of that logos thing."

It is disheartening for my students. I showed them Reagan did the same thing. Lots of nice anecdotes, especially about letters from fellow Americans, but little substance. If you want substance from a recent president, turn to Clinton, Carter, or even Nixon. These men used facts and figures constantly.

President Obama is keenly aware of Google and YouTube. He knows any statement will be checked and double-checked. Even an accurate statement can be demonstrably manipulative — so why make any statements of substance?

Obama does well with a teleprompter. Ironically, we dock points in speech classes when a student has failed to memorize a speech. And we know Obama doesn't do well in impromptu situations — witness the first debate with Mitt Romney.

As one scholar expressed it today, the president's superior rhetorical skills are part of a mythos surrounding him. It is better to watch his speeches than to read them if you want to appreciate his strengths.

The only lines we associate with the president aren't the hallmarks of a great speaker. In fact, they are signs of a poor speech and someone unsure of himself:
  • Let me be perfectly clear.
  • I don't want to be misunderstood.
  • Let's be honest.
Ponder what the markers convey about the speaker. These are not phrases uttered with confidence. Generally, we assume someone telling us to expect honesty and clarity is about to lie. Nixon used similar phrases — and we know how honest Nixon was.

Maybe the State of the Union speech will be better.

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