At a Rock the Vote awards dinner in 2005, then-Senator Obama spoke to a packed house at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. He cut a presidential figure on the stage, beautifully mobilizing the English language to take the audience back to the era of the civil rights movement. As the speech neared its end he began weaving in and out of his prepared remarks. The result: Obama was humanized. His personality emerged from the crafted political veneer and his true character became apparent in its full appeal.
This was one of the few times that I can remember when Obama displayed a willingness to speak extemporaneously -- albeit briefly. During the campaign, he avoided town-hall style events which would have forced him to speak off-the-cuff. He preferred instead to rely extensively on prepared remarks when out on the trail. In spite of this, the frequency with which he spoke and interacted with the public allowed them to get a good sense of the candidate.
Here is Obama's new problem: firmly enclosed within the White House bubble, he runs the risk of losing his man-of-the-people appeal. Much of this stems from his continued dependence on the teleprompter. The young cadre of White House speechwriters has suggested that Obama's close involvement in writing and preparing speeches has helped make them his own. Implicit in this is the suggestion that despite Obama's propensity to read from prepared remarks, he still comes across as genuine. Yet the image of Obama standing behind a podium emblazoned with the presidential seal has a subtle and yet powerful effect: it distances him from the American public. Of all people, Obama could be well-served by following in his predecessor's foot-steps.
When Bush was not confined by the limits imposed by prepared remarks, he had an innate ability to connect with his audience. He had a great sense for the mood in a room and he played to it. Without being told precisely what to say, his core beliefs and passion came through in the words he spoke. Frequent mis-deployment of his linguistic arsenal earned him a good deal of criticism, but it also helped endear him to many Americans. Even those who deplored his policies saw an honestly in what he was advocating. This allowed him bridge the gap between the oval office and the people he represented.
The prescription, to be clear, does not involve descending into the depths of anti-intellectualism; far from it, in fact. By throwing out the script, Obama could benefit by presenting his sharp intellect in an unvarnished, imperfect fashion. Americans would appreciate the genuineness of this; and even in those rare moments where Obama would eventually stumble over his words, he would reinforce a fact everyone loves to hear: that even great men sometimes fall short.