With the nation reeling from a deepening recession, Barack Obama's task in his first speech to a joint session of Congress was very much like that of a rookie football coach giving a half-time pep talk to a team trailing by a wide margin. The political pundits equated Obama's challenge to that of Sir Winston Churchill addressing his nation enduring the heavy bombardment by the German Wehrmacht, or of Franklin D. Roosevelt addressing his nation mired in a depression, or even of George W. Bush addressing his nation devastated by the 9/ll attacks.
Each of those leaders delivered a powerful inspirational message to his audience. Yes, even George W. Bush, in what was universally acknowledged to be a watershed speech, rose to the occasion.
By all accounts, Barack Obama rose to his occasion. A CBS News poll found that, "Eighty percent of speech watchers approve of President Obama's plans for dealing with the economic crisis. Before the speech, 63 percent approved."
Both sides of the aisle (mostly) approved, too. Even The Daily Show found little to poke fun at other than in a segment called "Optimist Prime." And even Thomas M. Defrank of the usually critical New York Daily News admitted that Obama "stole a page from Ronald Reagan, who proved optimism is a formidable political weapon."
How did Obama do it? How did he find silver linings in such threatening, overcast skies?
Structural balance. Rather than dwell on problems, Obama spent only the first 213 words of a more than 6,000 word speech talking about the recession before he turned positive with his rousing words, "Tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."
Energy. To fire the spirit that the occasion required, Obama's tempo was more rapid than in his earlier major speeches. Usually, he speaks in a smooth, rhythmic pattern, alternating rolling phrases with long pauses that make his cadence almost musical. But taking up the role of the football coach, he made his phrases crisper, shortened his pauses, and pumped more energy than usual into his voice. Occasionally, his speed caused him to falter briefly. As Robert Bianco observed in USA TODAY, "He's such a strong speaker that when he stumbles over a word, the glitch seems more glaring." To control his speed, Obama punctuated his words with wide inflections for emphasis.
Obama usually keeps his gestures to a minimum but, in this speech, he used his hands more often, with frequent finger-wagging (but never pointing). As always, he contained his gestures within the width of his shoulders, the increase in the amount of gesturing was only an extension of his basic style.
Human interest. Despite of the formal setting, Obama found moments to express himself informally. From his opening greeting to his wife, "The first lady of the United States ... who's around here somewhere," to addressing the Vice President sitting behind him, "Nobody messes with Joe," Obama leavened a serious and dry subject with warm personal references.
And when, in response to his speaking about the "responsibility we have to our children, and that's the responsibility to ensure that we do not pass on to them a debt they cannot pay," he got a particularly enthusiastic round of applause from even the Republicans, Obama broke into a wide smile and said, "See, I know we can get some consensus in here." The line was greeted with roars of laughter.
For his crowning human interest touch, Obama culminated his speech with an introduction of two exemplary citizens sitting in the congressional gallery with the first lady, a tradition initiated by Ronald Reagan.
Gerald F. Seib of the Wall Street Journal likened the speech to an FDR Fireside Chat with "an uplifting ending, complete with a Frank Capra-style call for fellow citizens to 'confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit.'"
Tomorrow, we will see one other technique that Obama employed in his speech; because the technique requires a bit of perspective, it will get its own separate treatment.