Can we give up the lie that Barack Obama is a great speaker? As I watched the SOTU speech last might, I think I see two reasons that Obama’s rhetoric, while enhanced by his beautiful baritone voice, doesn’t resonate as much as it could. One is visual and one is verbal.
Note that in most sentences, the last couple of syllables drop in pitch, almost to the point that he seems to swallow the last words. That’s not a critical flaw per se, but when it becomes the dominant trajectory of his sentences, it borders on boredom. Speakers should mix up their inflections to keep the speech lively and varied. It reminds me of a child who, when asked if he did something bad, drops the ends of his sentence as he loses confidence in his argument. Obama sounds as if he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying or loses his assuredness. Hopeful speech should sound hopeful in its inflections, meaning the ends of sentences should soar, not sink.
Second, only once in the entire speech did he look at the audience at home. In fact, his body is mechanical in its back and forth between the two teleprompters. This reliance on the words in front of him instead of those in his heart is becoming the stuff of ridicule. But most important, he fails to connect with the home audience. In fact, his side to side head moves makes it obvious to everyone that he’s reading. He might as well read from the script on the lectern.
I give him credit for saying he’s opposed to extending the Bush tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 and for taking on the Supreme Court. (Although wouldn’t it have been more effective if he looked directly at them and said, “The decision is wrong and we will overturn it.”) The fighting tone some credit him with sounds to me like the empty words of the class intellectual, who will, at the first sign of a real fight, fold as Obama has so often in the first year.