Is Barack Obama rediscovering his speaking mojo? It’s a key question concerning how the president will fare in his convention acceptance speech Thursday night.
The presidency changes all occupants of the office—but President Obama in particular seemed to have lost some of his fire in the transition from the stump to the bully pulpit. His famous battles with Congressional Republicans were partly to blame. But his ability to project both leadership and vision—indeed, to sound hopeful in a way that matched his 2008 slogan—had suffered.
In terms of his delivery behind the lectern, he was speaking more slowly, less energetically, as the bold rhythms of his earlier speeches as nominee and candidate gave way to the weightier rhetoric of the White House.
As all of America knows, it is Obama’s speeches that paved his path to the presidency as much as any element of his 2008 campaign. In particular, his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic convention in Boston electrified his party and prepared the nation for his rock-star status four years later.
So the question becomes: Can Obama recapture the Denver convention magic in Charlotte? In this year’s excruciatingly close contest, his ability to do so just might be the hinge on which the door to a second term opens or stays shut.
Charlotte is a Web of Opportunities and Risks
As a known quantity as both president and convention speaker, Obama’s opponent tonight is Barack Obama as much as it is Mitt Romney. Expectations from 2008 “loom over the gathering” and invite comparisons to Obama’s past convention speeches.
The rarified air at the 2008 convention in Denver literally had Obama speaking from the mountaintop. Yet symbolically, Charlotte sits a mere 748 feet above sea level, and Obama’s performance must take wing if he’s to avoid the conclusion in voters’ minds that the constant battles of the last four years have turned his feet to clay.
Another factor: Former President Bill Clinton. Few politicos can equal No. 42’s ease and sheer joy at speechmaking and Bubba’s star turn could leave Obama looking weak by comparison.
Combining Detachment with Likeability: Can He Continue to Pull It Off?
In memories of Democratic conventions past lies much of Barack Obama’s glory. That will be his strength in Charlotte, and one of his greatest challenges as well, his presidential record notwithstanding.
The “likeability gap” that exists in Obama’s favor will help him toward giving a bravura performance, reminding television viewers of the excitement they felt four years ago.
Certainly, he should exceed the modest effect of Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech last week in Tampa. But Obama will still be performing a high-wire act of balancing personal charisma with an overly cool speaking style. Obama biographer David Maraniss calls it a “self-imposed detachment,” as indeed it is.
Americans have more than once benefited from Obama’s gift as a speaker, yet too often he refuses to unwrap the package.
Obama’s Vocal Challenges
Fortunately for the president, lately he’s been finding his voice again. His recent appearance in Des Moines showed him in excellent form, obviously enjoying himself and rediscovering his natural rhythms as a speaker. He told jokes, good ones, and the sea of “Forward”-looking true believers in his audience loved what they saw and heard.
For Obama to seal the deal in Charlotte, he has to continue this process. He must reacquaint himself with his earlier self—not the nominee of 2008 who gave a presentable acceptance speech, but the Barack Obama of the convention four years earlier in Boston, where he spoke movingly and powerfully.
That was Obama at the peak of his abilities. Anyone watching a video clip of that keynote will be reminded of it immediately. Obama 1.0 was fresh and original. He displayed movement and energy as a speaker: he gestured and pivoted constantly, side to side, enfolding everyone in his body language. His speech rhythms were fluid, his pace brisker than we’ve become used to since then.
His speech rate proves it: The arc of Obama’s speeches over the last twelve years shows a marked reduction in the speed of his delivery. In his electrifying keynote address in Boston in 2004, Obama’s speech rate clocked in at around 166 words per minute (the average American speaks at 120–150 words per minute). That’s a good clip, and it lent energy and momentum to his address. Move forward four years to his 2008 acceptance speech in Denver, and his pace works out to around 146 words per minute, or 12 percent slower.
By the time of the Des Moines speech last weekend, his speech rate was down to a halting 112 wpm, or another 23 percent drop.
Speeches depend upon situation and occasion, and all of this doesn’t necessarily mean that Obama is winding down like a grandfather clock left unattended. But it perhaps signifies that the weight of his office has been having an effect on his ability to energize, to inspire, and to light a fire under his audiences.
If that’s the case, then the recent Des Moines pre-Labor day speech may herald a return to Obama’s former style. The renewed energy and sheer enjoyment he displayed in Iowa can only help him regain his convention magic. He’ll need all his powers to cast a successful spell in this brutal election year, facing a challenger who’s honed his own skills over many months of speech-making and tough debates.
Gary Genard is founder and president of Public Speaking International, a political speech training company located in Boston.