Barack Obama came to the Presidency riding the crest of an oratorical tidal wave. Because of that, the media and pundits have said he could do no wrong (communications wise). Well, the emperor has no clothes.
It’s not that President Obama is a BAD communicator, particularly in contrast to the most recent President Bush. It’s just that Obama has failed to live up to his communications promise. He was a great speaker as a candidate but is not so great a communicator now that he is the leader. And he has not expanded his capabilities.
- Obama appears aloof and professorial in his many formal speaking situations. He actually holds his head up so his nose is often in the air, lips pursed – not very open and connecting.
- In formal and informal speaking situations he speaks in bursts, with a repetitious cadence. It's a mannered habit that is often effective in oratory (eg. Martin Luther King), but has a sing-song rhythm in the less formal settings. More pausing would help, and rid him of his 'ums' and 'ahs' that permeate his press conferences and other Q&A settings.
- He puts an enormous emphasis on scripts and the teleprompter. What a burden on his speechwriters, who are actually quite good and very well paid, but overworked. With the frantic and relentless pace and demand of Presidential communications, you very often have to rely on your mind, not your writers. You can’t lead from scripts.
- To my great surprise, President Obama has NEVER learned how to use the teleprompter well. I’ve posted on this elsewhere, and the press has often ridiculed his reliance on the teleprompter (very funny clip here). Using the teleprompter well is a skill, and not hard to learn. It’s too bad that Obama continues to look like he’s watching a ping-pong match – 4 seconds to one side and 4 seconds to the other. There is a better way.
- He often makes gaffes when he speaks spontaneously. Although Obama is certainly not at the blunder level of Bush, he did misspeak saying "I don't know the facts but... the Cambridge police acted stupidly,” Nancy Reagan's séances, "above my pay grade," and the like (clip.) Maybe that’s why his handlers want him to be scripted, but he can learn to be both careful and clever.
- And the President is way overexposed. Speaking so often on the less important diminishes the very important, and he could pick his shots much more wisely. Granted that he has put forth so many initiatives he may feel he must push them all, but the “bully pulpit” is best used powerfully, and sparingly.
His popularity ratings have plummeted in recent weeks. Even his controversial Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has a higher favorability rating than the President. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Barack Obama is young, fresh, personable, and has an attractive family. He certainly is bright and has strong opinions. But he is not the Great Communicator. Although that is just one of the reasons his popularity ratings have plummeted, it is a major one. People buy on emotion and justify with fact. At the emotional level, the President just does not connect as well as he could - and should, if he wants another term.