Thumper Obama

by Steven F. Hayward

No, that’s not his World Wrestling Federation handle. It’s a reference to his abominable speaking style.

First, a time out to put this post in context. Forgive me for going to my favorite well, but I can’t help it. Query: Why was Reagan so good at Oval Office speeches (and other venues as well)? Among other things, he was very very spare in his hand gestures. This is a simple point, but one overlooked by 99 percent of all public speakers. Most of us (and I plead guilty here, as a nervous, overly animated speaker) use hand gestures as devices to relax us while speaking. Reagan learned, starting especially with his radio days in the 1930s but also later in movies, that the voice is much more important than hand gestures. Reagan’s missing hand gestures are the “dog that did not bark” in most of his speeches — a sign of his unappreciated discipline at public speaking. He understood the subtle point that if you aren’t making ostentatious hand gestures, people will pay more attention to your voice and your words, and won’t even consciously know they are paying closer attention. Of course, Reagan’s handsome, sincere face and dulcet tones helped a lot, but the point about not distracting people with hand gestures is significant.

If you want to see a useful contrast, see Reagan’s speech discussing the 1986 bombing raid on Libya (few hand gestures) and then watch Jimmy Carter’s cringe-worthy hand gestures in the infamous “malaise” speech, which where the deliberate product of the advice of his media adviser Gerald Rafshoon. Rafshoon had a reputation as media genius. Not here.

So, in Obama’s speech last night, I couldn’t get past his relentless hand gestures, and especially the fact that after just about every compound sentence that is typical of his rhetoric, he would flop his hands on the podium, which the microphone would pick up as an audible “thump.” But at some point — and maybe that point was reached last night — his thumps made for cloddish rhetoric that made the speech land with an overall thud. The whole speech went down with a cadence like this:

To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.


Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries.


The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.


Et cetera, et cetera. I can’t believe I am the only person who found this distracting and annoying. And I also can’t believe the White House communications staff is so oblivious as not to pick up on this.

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