February 27th, 2009

Obama: the speech and the voice

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:

obamacartoon.jpg

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."]

32 Responses to “Obama: the speech and the voice”

  1. Dan Collins Says:

    TIMBRE!!!

  2. Michael Bondor Says:

    I agree with you. One thing I’ve noticed is: he will drop the pitch at the end of a sentence when he’s saying something (intended to be) particularly meaningful or forceful. I am beginning to think when I hear him do that that it is a tell – the clue that he is lying.

  3. Rose Says:

    I have to turn the sound off anymore, because I cannot stand the SOUND of his voice. I didn’t feel that way the first time I heard him, when he gave that first convention speech so many years ago now.

    Now it grates on my nerves, as I listen for substance and find none – ever. Any person could say those same words. They mean nothing, and there is nothing behind them except a good speech writer. Nothing honest.

    In fact, he is a master at saying the pretty things and doing the ugly things – the expression of high-minded ideals clash with the Rezko/Ayres/Wright reality of the man and his policies.

    His preaching fiscal responsibility as he spends us into oblivion is mind-bogglingly offensive – I just can’t take it any more.

    I HOPE that people see through him. The sooner the better.

  4. Jimmy J. Says:

    John Facenda (Voice of the NFL), Richard Basehart, Richard Burton, Paul Robeson, James Earl Jones, and Martin Luther King all had those magnificent voices that could move people just by the deep vibrating quality of their words.

    Obama’s voice is good, but nowhere near the quality of the aforementioned men. What adds to his voice is the tall, slim, cool appearance and the unflappabilty. He is the anti-Bush. I used to hear Bush speak and say it was an acceptable speech, but when I read the words I realized it was a much better speech than I had heard. Just the opposite occurs with Obama. The speech sounds good and leaves a favorable impression, but when I read it I realize the speech has the substance of cotton candy.

  5. SteveH Says:

    I want to know what kind of person enjoys great oratory from a person whos actions nowhere near match his platitudinous words. Its like the shallowest of admissions that good vibes will somehow beat back reality.

  6. physicsguy Says:

    Isn’t this how the classic snake-oil salesman operated? By the wonderful voice and cadence. It does leave most people under a spell, but eventually that spell has to break. I assume that’s why he is rushing through all his priorities before everyone realizes what he’s gotten us into. By then it will be too late.

  7. alanstorm Says:

    I’ve noticed similar things. His speeches are (generally) delivered well, but there’s little substance; it’s mostly attacks on Bush and the GOP, platitudes, and the other 90% is feel-good filler.

    It reminds me of Muzak: the pieces are actually performed and recorded well, as far as technique, but who wants to listen to it?

  8. Lame-R Says:

    His baritone is aided by his occasional smoking. Despite what the opera coach declared, such things as smoking, alcohol, coffee, etc., do substantially change the natural sound of a voice.

    Just enough of the above and you get a deeper, more resonant sound, due to several physical factors, such as a thickening of the vocal folds.

    Too much and you get vocal nodules (among other things), resulting in a hoarse and raspy sound.

  9. Jamie Says:

    Two things: My husband and I started dating as I was recovering from terrible laryngitis; he said I sounded like Kathleen Turner and it was a big part of my appeal. Sigh.

    And long ago I read Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven, Alexandrian historical fiction, in which Demosthenes is described as having striven mightily to overcome a reedy voice and (IIRC) a stutter; as an orator, he knew very well that his strength was in his voice, delivery, and semantic choices, and he took narcissitic pride in using those qualities to change events. I’m sorry to say I don’t know enough about the real Demosthenes to evaluate how much of the Renault Demosthenes was based on research and how much on necessities of plot.

  10. Andy Says:

    To further your ‘narcissism’ point (10 minute YouTube):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVnRzn4rjbY

    or the written version (quite long):
    http://www.faithfreedom.org/obama.html

  11. dane Says:

    Lewis Carroll anyone ??

    twas brillig, and the slivy toves
    did gyre and gimble in the wabe
    all mimsy were the borogoves
    and the momerathes outgrabe.

    So another thing about the voice. I noticed this more when he wasn’t delivering a set speech – rather in his Q&A s but it is creeping into his speeches now. If you close your eyes and listen to his cadence, pauses, and emphases and then take away the deep timbre I think you will find he sounds amazingly like John Belushi or Will Sasso doing an over-the-top Captain Kirk.

  12. kaba Says:

    I have read that Lincoln’s voice was rather high pitched and very thin.

    Just a little irony there.

  13. PA Cat Says:

    I’m immune to his voice too– from the very beginning, I found him impossible to listen to without gagging. I suspect that is because I pay more attention to the content of a speech than to vocal intonation. Following kaba’s observation about Lincoln, I recall that St. Paul openly admitted in his letters that his hearers found his voice and physical appearance unimpressive– “my speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit . . . ” [1 Cor. 2:4]. I would agree with physicsguy that the spell of O’s voice will eventually be broken, just like his empty promises.

  14. Oldflyer Says:

    I just read an excerpt from his speech at Camp Lejune today. My reaction was that he cannot speak without lecturing, maybe I should say hectoring.

    “The American people must understand. . .”

    I for one am sick of it.

    But, I have never understood the appeal. I can listen to him easier than I can watch. His arrogant mannerisms are just too much to bear.

    I have to believe that some pundits and Republican politicans are leery of criticizing his mannerisms. It could be construed as racism, you know? I heard one pundit say this evening that someone must be giving him misleading information that he uses in his public statements. This whimp could not bring herself to say truthfully that he is lying.

  15. njcommuter Says:

    Obama’s voice bothers me, for reasons I cannot exactly state. Some of it is trained; I have learned that he will strike notes suggesting one tune, but end up playing another, and not one that I want to hear. But he is the President, and whether we listen out of duty or out of self-preservation, it behoves us to listen.

  16. FredHjr Says:

    I have to honestly admit I’ve never listened to an Obama speech. I’ve heard sound bites, but that is all. Back in 2007, when the media was starting to build him up, I tried to get the facts about his background. At that time it was not easy to do. During early 2008 vastly more about this was coming forward. So, I am predisposed to disliking the man.

    Style is not my forte. I’m a content man. I make it a habit of taking a long time to get to know a person, so there are a lot of things that people think they pick up on early when sizing someone up that I miss (or choose to ignore). I have tried to do thought experiments with myself, imagining myself as I was back when I was in college and a young socialist, to see if there is anything about Obama that would have impressed me back then. Alas, I am at a loss. I was a content person in those days too, which is why I swam in the more academic/intellectual pool as opposed to the activist/placard carrying one. I did this thought experiment with myself in order to see if I could enter the mindset of today’s young people who are his strongest, densest base of support. I just don’t see what they see in him.

    I find him an insubstantial person. I just don’t understand what his professors and fellow students saw in him. Knowing his background, I am predisposed to doubt his sincerity. I’ve seen a pattern in his life that resonates with my prior experiences with some people in the Marxist camp I knew many years ago: they are deceptive about who they are, what they believe, what they stand for, what they live for, and what they value. And I am not comfortable around liars. It is painful to listen to them. I will not subject myself to a man who is all of the things I think he is. And I do not agree with his ideas.

    Therefore, I will get THE CONTENT of his political pronouncements from sources I trust and evaluate it as I will.

    I’m baffled by what so many see in him. Because I just don’t get it. Call me tone deaf. Maybe someone on this board who understands the kids better than I do can explain this to me. I’ve tried to deconstruct myself to the place I was when I was their age, and I find that we are, in many ways, culturally a world apart. But I was 22 years old when I started college, just out of the Army. Could that have made the difference?

  17. dane Says:

    Oldflyer talked about the speech at camp LeJune today so I will add something that does not have to do with his voice – rather his content. I did not see all the speech but one thing caught my attention (and like many things he has said since he began campaigning it probably sneaked under the radar). When he was talking about the withdrawal from Iraq and other military operations he said, “I will consult with members of congress before making any decisions” (probably didn’t get it word for word but close enough). What was missing?

    Military leaders. He did not say, “I will consult with congress AND military leaders”. An oversight? I don’t think so. It might have been an inadvertent omission but it goes to the heart of things. He has no respect for, and does not intend to listen to, military leaders.

    I thought it was interesting that out of the four Marines behind Obama in the fixed pool camera shot of the speech two were black. But I’ll tell you – none of them looked happy.

    And one other thing. It irritates the heck out of me that he spent another few hundred thousand to take AF One down there just for the photo op of making the speech at a military base. I actually think he thought a lot of them would be happy just to be leaving Iraq – whether the job was done or not. He obviously doesn’t know military people (especially Marines). I would hope that some of their sense of honor and camaraderie would have rubbed off on him – but I doubt it. Like Clinton he has made a serious error that just because he is commander in chief he will automatically be respected by the troops. He doesn’t understand that they will obey all his LAWFUL orders but it doesn’t mean they will respect him.

    If you want to go visit the troops – fine. Don’t USE them.

  18. strcpy Says:

    One of the differences here is that you (and many of us) also have an interest in the real greats – FDR, Churchill, and of the more modern JFK and Reagan. He doesn’t hold anything at all to them (and JFK/Reagan barely makes it on that list even though they are usually considered one of the best in modern times).

    *shurg* Obama’s popularity is dropping quite quickly amongst the groups you would expect it to first. That is, those that were only really voting for him as the “anti-republican”. He still gets a favorable by many others but that has gone from a strong one to a thin margin.

    It will continue to to fall and unless he learns how to deal otherwise will most likely drop below Bushes. Too many one his side (himself included) are heavily deluding themselves. It reminds me of coaching seminars about negativity vs positive attitudes. One can express ambitious goals in both ways – that is there is a large difference between “You will not miss any in the next 60 shots” and “You will hit the center every time in the next 60 shots”. Obama is the former and the “greats” are the latter – he doesn’t understand this and I do not think he *can* understand it (his background being identity politics grounded in the negative). His supporters are focusing on that his goals are lofty/ambitious just like the great and sorts ignoring his path to get there and his actual content (focusing on the delivery of his voice). Wall street isn’t buying it for a reason.

  19. waltj Says:

    I think the mellifluous tones are what have hypnotized a lot of his supporters. Like someone else here said, that’s the technique of snake oil salesmen and other con artists. Elmer Gantry would be proud. Me, I’ll just read the transcripts. And weep.

  20. SteveH Says:

    I’ll tell you what i see coming from all of this. In 20 years we’ll have a voting age of 25 and people not paying into the system having no vote at all.

    This pendulum is going to swing like none we’ve ever seen before. In the weirdest way we had to get where we are now to have a chance of righting this ship.

    We’ll look back and count our blessings that McCain did not win and prolong this suffering and postpone this destiny.

  21. winston Says:

    Clinton redux…people want to follow…tell me where to go…and they will follow anything if it feels good…20% unemployment, Dow at 2000 and runaway inflation cannot get here soon enough for me…because that is what it will take for the American people to get it.

  22. Nolanimrod Says:

    I don’t get it. I took speech and debate in high school. HIGH SCHOOL! And I was better at it than Obama. Almost everybody was better than Obama. His speeches are mostly either straw-man bashing or veiled ad hominem attacks. His voice ISN’T all that mellifluous, you get him away from the teleprompter and it’s uh-uh-uh-uh and I-I-I-I and he-he-he-he. Sounds like he’s got Tourette’s! Yet all I heard/hear is Eloquent!, Moving! and the occasional Hypnotic! What gives? I mean REALLY?

    I know we feel good about having a black president and we feel good that a black man is talented and savvy enough to get to be president but come on, folks, this guy is not a two year-old nor is he a puppy. Everything he does is not just the most wonderful thing that has ever happened in the history of the universe.

    Same for Mrs. O. All I heard/hear is Elegant, Stylish, etc. I got a glimpse of Mrs. Obama inauguration day and saw a photo of her outfit for the ball. One outfit I’ve seen on a sofa and the other I’ve seen on Fred Sanford’s Aunt Esther. Carla Brunetti this ain’t. But if I were blind and just listened to the commentators that’s what I’d think!

    Maybe people should just take a moment to self-administer a little notional Ritalin and repeat as often as necessary, “He’s just a human being. He’s just a human being. He’s just a human being.”

  23. kcom Says:

    I don’t get it either. I don’t find his voice soothing or inspiring at all. I think it actually has a tinge of harshness to it, especially when he gets whiny when things don’t go his way. And, as far as the content, my nickname for him in my private thoughts is “Captain Platitude” because that’s all I hear from him in the bits and pieces I’ve listened to.

    I agree with you. One thing I’ve noticed is: he will drop the pitch at the end of a sentence when he’s saying something (intended to be) particularly meaningful or forceful. I am beginning to think when I hear him do that that it is a tell – the clue that he is lying.

    I’ve noticed that, too, and that’s one of the things that bugs me the most. I don’t know if it means he’s lying, but it certainly means he’s not a good speaker. Just about every sentence in certain situations I’ve heard him talking ends like that. He drops his voice and rushes that last few words and comes to a hard stop like crashing into a wall. I have to shake it off like I’ve been in an accident. The next sentence begins like it’s a whole different topic and I’m not ready for it. At the bare minimum, a public speech should flow from one thought and sentence to the next. Reagan’s voice soared from one thought to the next at his best. Obama has a long way to go reach that standard.

    Whether the above is a personal thing, or a Midwestern Chicago thing (a place I’ve lived) or some combination of both, I’m not sure. But that alone makes it very difficult for me to listen to him (and I actually don’t remember having difficulty listening to other Chicagoans I knew).

  24. Occam's Beard Says:

    Obama was born to be a news anchor. Katie Couric was born to be a daycare worker.

    What the hell happened?

  25. Sloan Says:

    A colleague at work was showing another co-worker, who is black and is a major Obama supporter, a graph of the Obama deficit spending in comparison to that of previous administrations. He said to her, “This level of deficit spending is unprecedented in the history of our country.” She responded by saying “Having the first black President in history, that’s unprecedented too.”

    Somehow I feel that this exchange encapsulates the essence of Obamamania. The economy can go straight into the crapper, we can spend ourselves into oblivion, tax the producers, give the money to the non-producers, embolden our enemies, give up on fighting terrorism, but hey! we have a black President!

  26. csimon Says:

    I agree with neo 100%. I just miss what most of the world goes gaga over. As I have said here many times before, I just don’t hear his Pied Piper tune that so entrances the masses.

    Yes, there is the timbre of his voice which is powerful — but contrary to many “talking heads,” that does not make a great speech. (Now the combination of a great speechwriter whose words meaningfully engage the crowds and retain their attention whilst delivering a message AND a speaker with the tone and delivery of Obama — COULD make a great speech if it informed.)

    I, too, now, pull back when I hear his voice because I know it will be empty words. I wonder if this is because he and his handlers believe their audience to be so superficial and so uneducated and so mesmerized that they believe they can get away with anything. (Think Chuck Schumer’s address to the “chattering classes” the other day and his galling assertion that the voters “don’t care about those little…porky pieces.” Think the Congressional Democrats who are enthralled by him for the simple reason that they have derived unchecked power on his coattails. Basically they can do what they want — and they have. As has Mr. Obama.

    While many of us clearly resented the shoving of a humongous “stimulus” bill laden with obscene “porky pieces” brought us to the “Whoa, there…what the hell do you all think you’re doing?” moment, it wasn’t until information started leaking about the contents seeded a bit of doubt amongst his followers. Then learning that the vote was forced before a single Senator or Congressman (let alone the people) had been given time to even READ the bill, was the moment when a lot more Americans looked up and took notice. (And that’s not even taking account the insult added upon injury when the President put off the signing until Tues. to fly to Colorado (at enormous expense to the public) just to create a photo op for signing the bill in front of a socialized business that makes solar panels.

    With the latest budget, the curtain has been pulled back on the “great and wondrous” wizard to reveal the manipulative man he really is, and his grand plans to completely re-make our system of govt. and our economy — of course, at our expense. His utopia has many faults, chief among them the failure to consider human nature. It might have opportunity, but successful employment of said opportunity is punished. Those lacking any ambition, work ethic or sense of responsibility are rewarded.

    The one question I have is: if one doesn’t like the U.S. and our systems which have created the most powerful country in the world, even while being one of the youngest, why stay? Why try to remake it. Surely, there are numerous countries around the globe — say, his father’s homeland and other countries on the African continent who are terribly in need of any kind of organized state…

    The anger has begun — not just our anger. Americans are a prideful people. They may not all be well-informed, but I dare say they do not like the idea of being duped, let alone being forced to pay for it. I wonder if Americans will have the guts to rise up and say NO! when they realize what is going on……..

  27. huxley Says:

    I don’t get it either. But for many people Obama has a Reality Distortion Field surpassing that of Steve Jobs.

    Here’s Warren Buffet crowing about Obama on Inauguration Day:

    BROKAW: Is Barack Obama the right commander in chief for the economy?

    BUFFETT: He’s the absolute right commander in chief … that’s another thing the American people seem to do, occasionally, is that we elect people that are right for the times. You know, whether it was Lincoln, Roosevelt. I would say Obama … you couldn’t have anybody better in charge.

    BROKAW: But why is he right for the times?

    BUFFETT: Well, he’s smart, he’s got the right values, but he also … understands economics very well. He’s cool. He’s analytical. But then, when he gets it all thought through, he’s fast — he can convey to the American people what needs to be done. Not to expect miracles. That it’s gonna take time. But that we’re gonna get to the other end.

    As usual in these Obama encomiums there are no specifics — just the supporters’ gut sense of how wonderful and intelligent Obama is.

    I wonder what Buffet is thinking about Obama and his economic policies now.

  28. Rose Says:

    Buffet is thinking about how much money he will reap from his coup, just like George Soros.

    Regarding the “four Marines behind Obama in the fixed pool camera shot of the speech two were black. But I’ll tell you – none of them looked happy….”

    I’m told that they most likely were instructed where to sit, know they were being used as props, and “think their own thoughts inside their head.”

    That he uses them as props and so clearly has no respect for them is yet another reason that I, like Limbaugh, HOPE HE FAILS.

    That he and his wife meet with the activist groups and send them out as his army to wage war on US, to beat us down, eliminate any contrary thought is another reason why he MUST FAIL.

  29. M Says:

    There is a smugness to Obama’s oratory style that makes me gag. Awhile ago, Bill Clinton referred to Obama referring to himself as a sort of empty vessel that would “sell” whatever the experts (of liberal persuasion) would tell him needs to happen.

    I think Obama looks at his speaking as the gift that has made his presidency possible. Therefore, he takes special pride in it and tries to use the same lofty style in speeches where it is not entirely appropriate, trying to recreate the same exuberance that was present at his early days on the campaign.

    But this cannot last. With each speech he delivers in the exact same fashion, audience impact will diminish. Manufacturing aura and ambiance does not work; it gets old quick.

  30. SovietofWashington Says:

    Buffet’s been a Democrat stalwart for a long time, so no surprise there about Obama support.

    What’s bugging you about Obama’s oratory style but you can’t place is his active and unethical use of both Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Ericksonian Hypnosis (after Dr. Milton Erickson, MD) in both campaign and presidential oratory. Start by reviewing this paper, then google Youtube videos of Derren Brown to see how it works in other situations.

  31. CV Says:

    I have reached the point where I automatically grit my teeth whenever Obama says ANYTHING. His voice has an annoying arrogant-singsong-overly confident quality and as you have pointed out, the content is almost always suspect.

    Another thing that he says, frequently, is “…as I have said before…” when in fact, he never did say it before or said something quite the opposite. But he uses it to reinforce the impression of consistency when in fact he is anything but. How can a man say, with a straight face, that he is NOT in favor of big government (part of his address to Congress) immediately after ramming through a $1 trillion government spending bill?

    It boggles the mind.

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