He’s gone from being a man knowing for his soaring rhetoric and impeccable oratorical skills to being dubbed, the teleprompter president. Popular talk show host Laura Ingraham began calling Barack Obama “Tennis Match” after watching one of the president’s speeches where he read the script from the teleprompter, his head bouncing from the screen on the left to the screen on the right and back again.
Mr. Obama’s Teflon image is certainly wearing away as the public, at least the American public begin to notice the man is human. Internationally, Mr. Obama’s superhuman status remains intact.
Some of this talk is surely just right wing bashing of the left wing president, pay back from Republicans after years of them having to put up with BDS, Bush Derangement Syndrome, the condition that appeared to infect many left wing commentators so that the mere mention of Mr. Bush’s name sent them into full blown fits. In fact one bumper sticker being passed around on the right these days reads “I’ll give your president the same respect you gave mine.” Meaning very little at all.
So it was in that light that I viewed the series of emails popping around lately with YouTube clips of Barack Obama stumbling through bouts of verbal incoherence when speaking without a teleprompter.
Now I have to say, I reject the overall charge that President Obama just can’t speak without a teleprompter, despite the evidence that he has sometimes fumbled. I’ve watched him closely, once had the chance to sit in the same room as the man for a news conference where neither the president nor Prime Minister Stephen Harper used teleprompters. This is, I thought, just a partisan harangue of a president they don’t like.
Or is it?
White House historians, press corp members and others have begun noting how frequently President Obama uses the device for speeches long or short. Consider this from a recent piece on Politico.com
Then there was the mistake President Obama made on St. Patrick’s Day, at an event with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen, Mr. Obama thanked himself for inviting all the guests, a teleprompter mix-up he should have been able to stop if he were simply reading and paying attention to what he was saying.
Am I picking on the president here? No, although given the number of teleprompter blunders, it appears that would be easy. Instead I’m using the most powerful politician in the world to lament the loss of some key skills for politicians, oratory, and rhetoric.
I watch politicians for a living, most, even at the top of the game, have only mediocre oratorical skills. I don’t know why this is, these people, like me as a broadcaster, mostly speak for a living, yet most stumble and stammer about when asked to defend their positions, critique an opponent or give a speech. In Canada’s Parliament we have, when the House of Commons is sitting, a daily question period. Members of the three opposition parties rise during the 45 minute theatrical event to ask the prime minister or other government minister a question related to policy or more often, scandal. You would think that in asking a 35 second question, Members of Parliament would be able to eek out their question without reading verbatim the question written out by a partisan staffer. Or those ministers could answer a question regarding their portfolio without reading a reply written by their partisan staffer. Sadly, if you think that you would be mistaken.
Perhaps the sad state of affairs, the utter lack of any skill in speaking or any sense that the politicians even believe what they are trying to sell to us is why a recent short speech by a British Member of the European Parliament, was such a hit. Daniel Hannan, a Conservative MEP for South East England, delivered a rebuttal to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown had just finished delivering a speech asking European politicians to join him in the push for an expanded stimulus package, more spending to theoretically get the economy going.
Hannan, while clearly having rehearsed his speech, delivered most of it looking at Gordon Brown, required by EU parliamentary protocol to stay and listen to the responses to his own speech. Another difference for Hannan, a sense that he believes what he says, that it is not tested in a focus group and derived from the latest nationwide public opinion polls. In fact, despite a warm reception from pundits on the right in North America, media commentary on his speech in the UK has tilted against him, one Labour pundit calling it “a cleverly little Etonian, public school boy speech.”
Mr. Hannan’s speech was more than clever. The brief chiding of a major head of state struck a nerve I think for two reasons, the aforementioned clarity of his talk, his ability to actually use words without the teleprompter and secondly because people are fed up. As the global economy sinks, I hear radio talk show lines filled with people not sure the solutions offered by government will work, I see online chatter expressing the similar sentiment. And all the while leaders of the world’s richest economies step forward to tell their people, we have a handle on this.
Americans began nationalising their banks and insurance companies after Labour Day, they began the process of bailing out auto companies around October and they’ve watched some of their tax dollars head to corporate bonuses.
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