I’m obviously not a fan of Obama’s policies. But many people who are with me on that score still believe that he’s an excellent public speaker and a charismatic orator, and that these qualities were evident in his recent speech to Congress and the nation.
I watched that speech, and even liveblogged it. But I found it to be a boring, formulaic laundry list, with some attempts at inspiration that fell flat because they seemed grafted onto Obama’s naturally subdued personality rather than an integral part of it. I also found the speech curiously loaded with narcissistic-sounding self-referential statements about what “I” (Obama, that is) will do, or what “I” will not allow. Nearly all politicians are full of themselves, but Obama seems stuffed to the bursting point.
It continues to puzzle me that others see so much in Obama’s speeches while I see so little. Or is the proper word “hear?” I’m not an auditory processor and have never thought much of speeches in general; it takes a really great one to impress me. And when I hear political speeches, I am listening mainly for two things: content (and that includes misrepresentations and/or inconsistencies and logical flaws) and sincerity.
The latter is less important to me than the former. I almost always assume a degree of falseness and artifice on the part of politicians. Exceptions impress me mightily, for example the late Paul Tsongas.
But even sincerity, if in the cause of policies with which I disagree, isn’t going to persuade me of anything. Remember that old saw that sincerity is everything; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
Well, not with me you don’t. Is Obama sincere when he speaks? I’m not sure. But if he’s faking it, he’s doing an excellent job.
One thing about which Obama does seem sincere is his wish to remake the United States as a European-style welfare state, although I’m not impressed with either the goal or his plan on how to accomplish it. I’m with Holman Jenkins in the WSJ, who points out that Obama is driving up unrealistic expectations while offering policies that have failed in the past to do what he promises they will somehow accomplish now.
Jenkins believes that:
…[Obama] kids himself if he believes he will be allowed, like FDR, to preside over a depression without being politically blamed for it. The public is different now — the world is different — and he will own the “Obama depression” sooner than he thinks.
I don’t necessarily agree. If in fact things continue to be financially gloomy, I’m not so sure Obama will be held responsible at all by most people. And that is because I already see a huge disconnect between the adulation for him and what he is actually doing, and between the praise given to his speeches and what he is actually saying.
Dr. Sanity offers a wonderful cartoon by Steve Breen that expresses this rather nicely:
When I search for answers as to why people might be so pleased with Obama’s words and the way he delivers them, I think it is impossible to ignore the underpinnings of his oratory: the quality of his voice itself. He happens to be gifted with a naturally mellifluous baritone of a type that resonates in the deep recesses of the human heart and brain as trustworthy and soothing.
It’s the sort of voice that is sought after for radio or TV work, the type that used to narrate those educational films we watched as children. Such speaking voices tend to naturally project qualities such as those listed in this advertisement for a baritone voiceover artist: “sonorous, knowledgeable, authoritative and trustworthy.”
The man being described is an actor, of course. But note that the adjectives are exactly the same ones Obama’s admirers (and even some of his detractors) would use to describe features his voice and persona seems to project. They also happen to describe Ronald Reagan’s voice, by the way—and for the record, I was largely immune to its effect as well.
Here’s a fascinating article on Obama’s speaking abilities, written during the campaign:
Says [opera coach] Lotfi, “The fact is that the basic timbre is a god-given sound. Through technique and vocal study and all that, you can learn to control it and develop it, but you cannot manufacture timbre artificially…It comes across at a very gut level more so than at an intellectual level.”
When it happens that something within us shivers or tingles at the words of a great and moving voice…it is because there is something that leaps forth from the very anatomy of the speaker, revealing the innate grain that vibrates with a receptive grain of our own. It is not about goodness or morality or truth-telling and is little affected by coaching or practice.
Maybe I just happen lack the requisite “receptive grain” for Obama’s voice. I can hear the melody of the pleasant baritone quality well enough, but it just doesn’t mean a thing to me. Unfortunately, I sense that it means a great deal to others.
[NOTE: Jules Crittenden seems immune, as well. He describes the general reaction to Obama's speech as "a never-ending mass sycophancy of gaga-eyed fawning."]