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Obama and His “Lofty Speeches”

It’s stiff competition, but arguably Barack Obama’s chief courtier in the press is Jonathan Alter. Consider this analysis from a recent op-ed he wrote on five myths about Obama:

3. Obama is an effective public speaker.

Obama’s lofty speeches during the 2008 campaign led even his detractors to admit that he is a gifted orator. Some critics try to minimize his skill by saying he relies on a teleprompter–a ridiculous charge considering that he often writes big chunks of his speeches and often speaks off-the-cuff.

That said, there are few examples of Obama’s speeches actually moving popular opinion. That’s because he speaks in impressive paragraphs, not memorable sentences. He is allergic to sound bites, and that keeps him from effectively framing his goals and achievements.

The roots of this allergy may lie in his famous Philadelphia speech on race in 2008, which followed the revelations of incendiary comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The speech lacked memorable lines, but it was a big hit. I believe it convinced Obama that the public could absorb complex ideas without bumper sticker lines. He was wrong.

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal, whose daily take on events is very nearly indispensable, summarizes Alter’s argument this way: “So it turns out Obama is an ineffective public speaker because the public lacks the intellectual acumen to appreciate the brilliance of Obama’s speeches.”

All of this got me thinking about some other bumper-sticker lines in American history we could have done without. For example:

  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
  • “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
  • “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
  • “I have a dream.”
  • “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall.”

The mistake Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, King, and Reagan made is in failing to understand that the public could absorb complex ideas without these bumper-sticker lines. (These sound bite artists unfortunately succumbed to the temptation to use memorable sentences to mask their shallow arguments and unimpressive paragraphs.) Obama, on the other hand, employed sophisticated and complicated phrases to articulate his public philosophy – phrases like “yes we can” and “hope and change.” Against such eloquence, Abraham Lincoln never stood a chance.

 



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