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Obama Unplugged

Lost without a Teleprompter.

11:00 PM, Feb 11, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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USUALLY WHEN BARACK OBAMA gives a major speech, the overdone hosannas from the liberal commentariat follow as surely as night follows day. The American Prospect's Ezra Klein wrote of Obama's post-Iowa victory speech, "I've been blessed to hear many great orations. I was in the audience when Howard Dean gave his famous address challenging the Democratic Party to rediscover courage and return to principle . . . But none achieve(d) quite what Obama, at his best, creates. . . . Obama's finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don't even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment."

It would be unfair to say this childish lefty gushing has been without cause. Obama is indeed a magnificent speaker. A few days after his Iowa address, I emailed a friend of mine and called it the finest political speech I had ever heard. Then again, I cannot claim to have been in the audience for Howard Dean's "famous address."

In spite of Obama's obvious strengths in this area, questions linger regarding Obama's gifted speechifying. Do his speeches give us a glimpse at a very special man with a unique vision? Or are we merely witnessing a political one-trick pony? Yes, Obama can turn a phrase better and do more with a Teleprompter than any other modern era politician. But does his special skill set here actually mean anything, or is it instead the political equivalent of a dog walking on its hind legs--unusual and riveting, but not especially significant? Regardless, the liberal commentators have gushed their praise nearly every time Obama has opened his mouth before a Teleprompter the past few months

It was thus interesting to see Obama climb to the stage at Virginia's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Saturday night. As he strode to the podium, Obama clutched in his hands a pile of 3 by 5 index cards. The index cards meant only one thing--no Teleprompter.

Shorn of his Teleprompter, we saw a different Obama. His delivery was halting and unsure. He looked down at his obviously copious notes every few seconds throughout the speech. Unlike the typical Obama oration where the words flow with unparalleled fluidity, he stumbled over his phrasing repeatedly.

The prepared text for his remarks, as released on his website, sounded a lot like a typical Obama speech. All the Obama dramatis personae that we've come to know so well were there--the hapless family that had to put a "for sale" sign on its front lawn, the factory forced to shutter its doors and, of course, the mother who declares bankruptcy because "she cannot pay her child's medical bills."

The tone was also vintage Obama. The prepared text reached out to all Americans, including (gasp!) Republicans. It also evidenced Obama's signature lack of anger. While his colleagues have happily demagogued complex issues and demonized the Bush administration, Obama always has taken pains to strike a loftier tone.

But Saturday night's stem-winder turned out quite differently from the typical Obama speech. With no Teleprompter signaling the prepared text, Obama failed to deliver the speech in his characteristically flawless fashion. He had to rely on notes. And his memory. And he improvised.

The results weren't just interesting because they revealed Obama as a markedly inferior speaker without the Teleprompter. Obama's supporters have had ample notice that the scripted Obama is far more effective than the spontaneous one. The extremely articulate and passionate Obama that makes all the speeches has yet to show up at any of the debates. For such a gifted and energetic speaker, he is an oddly tongue-tied and indifferent debater.

What was especially noteworthy about his Virginia speech were the diversions Obama took from the prepared text. Because of Obama's improvised moments, this speech was different than the usual fare he offers. We didn't get the normal dosages of post-partisanship or even "elevation." Virtually every time Obama deviated from the text, he expressed the partisan anger that has so poisoned the Democratic party. His spontaneous comments eschewed the conciliatory and optimistic tone that has made the Obama campaign such a phenomenon. It looked like the spirit of John Edwards or Howard Dean had possessed Obama every time he vamped. While Paul Krugman probably loved it, this different Obama was a far less attractive one.

At one point, Obama launched an improvised jeremiad against the current administration that took special note of the recent revelation that he and Dick Cheney are distant relations: