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:
"Now I understand some of the excitement doesn't have to do with me. I know that whatever else happens whatever twists and turns this campaign may take, when you go into that polling place next November, the name George Bush won't be on the ballot and that makes everybody pretty cheerful. Everyone's happy about that. The name of my cousin Dick Cheney won't be on the ballot. That was embarrassing when that news came out. When they do these genealogical surveys, you want to be related to somebody cool. So, but, his name went be on the ballot.
"Each of us running for the Democratic nomination agrees on one thing that the other party does not--that the next president must end the disastrous policies of George W. Bush. No more Scooter Libby Justice! No more Brownie incompetence! No more Karl Rove politics."
None of this was in the prepared text. And all of it was a marked departure from the kind of successful campaign that Obama has run. One can imagine Obama, if he thought things through more fully, using the revelation regarding Cheney as an occasion to note something vapidly uplifting like how in America, we're all part of the same family.
Looking past the missed opportunity regarding the vice president, how many times has Obama deliberately pushed angry-left hot buttons like Scooter Libby and Karl Rove? Obama has run looking to the future, and thus hasn't felt it necessary to dwell on the purported horrors that the Bush administration has visited upon the nation. This tack has made him look above the fray.
Other improvised moments also contradicted the generally lofty tone of the Obama campaign. At one, point when addressing what we have to do for the economy, Obama ad-libbed, "The insurance and the drug companies aren't going to give up their profits easily . . . Exxon Mobil made $11 billion this past quarter." This is the kind of empty class warfare shtick that earned John Edwards an early exit from the race. What's more, it displayed the kind of simplistic sloganeering that Obama had previously eschewed.
Obama's shot at Exxon Mobil's profits is strikingly disingenuous. He seems to be implicitly saying that the healthy earnings are good news for Mr. Exxon and Mr. Mobil, who will promptly stash most of the profits underneath their obviously outsized mattresses. The two will then likely invest the remainder in foreign sweatshops that will facilitate the outsourcing of even more American jobs.
Of course, who benefits from corporate earnings is a slightly complex matter, and thus vulnerable to simplistic demagoguery. Just ask John Edwards. But Barack Obama is far too intelligent to not realize that many of the school teachers and union workers and working moms that so often people his more elegant speeches likely have an interest in Exxon Mobil's profits either from their retirement plan's portfolio or their union's holdings or their own investments that they actively manage. The implied notion that corporate profits matter only to the corporations in question is risibly counterfactual.
Worse still was the threat to take away the profits of the drug and insurance companies. Perhaps Obama thinks that the drug companies will continue to develop life saving therapies out of benevolence, and that their employees will happily take the pay cuts that will accompany the loss of profits. This is yet another simplistic piece of us-against-them politicking, the kind of thing that Obama has reliably eschewed--at least when he's on script.
What makes Obama's Jefferson-Jackson speech especially relevant is where he went when he went off script. The unifying Obama who has impressed so many people during this campaign season vanished, replaced by just another angry liberal railing against George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Exxon Mobil, and other long standing Democratic piñatas. The pressing question that Obama's decidedly uninspiring Jefferson-Jackson oratory raises is which Obama is the real Obama--the one who read beautifully crafted words from a Teleprompter after his victory in Iowa, or the tediously angry liberal who improvised in Virginia?
Dean Barnett is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.