Barack’s Superstar Effect on Speeches
In Craig Robinson’s introduction of Michelle Obama during Monday night’s installment of the DNC, he talked about Barack Obama’s basketball game, saying he’s the kind of player who makes everyone around him better. This is rather strong praise as the greatest players to ever grace the NBA courts were especially known for making their teammates better–Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird were particularly well thought of for this quality. (Incidentally, Kobe Bryant is criticized for having a lot of learning to do in this department.)
Watching the DNC this week has led me to believe that Barack does not only make his fellow pick-up basketball teammates better, but he makes his political teammates better as well, most notably in the area of speech-making. Barack has raised the public speaking bar in the Democratic Party and everyone is striving to meet him.
We’re seeing it in everyone from Hillary Clinton to John Kerry to Federico Pena, Mayor of Denver–the Democrats are speaking with more energy, panache, passion, clarity, poetry, composure, and frankness than they have in the past two elections (which is all my young memory affords me to compare). The most obvious improvment has been in Joe Biden, and it has come remarkably quickly. If you watched his introduction as Obama’s running mate in Springfield, IL on Saturday, you would have seen a normal Joe Biden–a politician who spoke in fairly complete sentences and made an effort to connect with the audience but who didn’t really succeed. Put next to a mere mortal, Biden’s speech wouldn’t have been alarming. However, next to Obama, he more resembled a mediocre city councilman than the well-informed, extremly well qualified VP that he is. Obama’s prowess as a speech-maker made Biden look bad.
Cut to Biden’s speech at the DNC tonight. He was a totally different performer. He slowed down, employed dynamics (in both the emotional and musical sense of the term), utilized repetitive rhetoric (“That’s not change; that’s more of the same!”), and in the process expressed his best self–a straight-talking, passionate public servant. There’s not doubt in my mind that Biden watched the film of his intro in Springfield and thought, “I’ve got to step it up a notch or I’m going to embarrass myself in Denver.” And step it up, he did, along with everyone else the Democratic National Committee invited to speak at the convention.
Back in the first 3 seasons of The West Wing, the hay day during which Aaron Sorkin was still writing every episode, I used to marvel at the speeches he would write for President Bartlett and I would dream of having a president who could speak like him and inspire me in the same way. Barack Obama has far exceeded my real-life expectations on the inpirational speech-giving front, and even more to my surprise he’s managed to bring everyone else with him.
Two other notes for someone to take on in the comments:
1) I’ve noted that everyone is speaking better, but just how are they managing it? Did they all hire Barack’s coach? Did they always have it in him and only now have been asked to rise to the occasion? Are they taking advice from Barack?
2) I firmly believe that these speeches are not forsaking responsible policy-thinking, rationality, insightfulness, and nuance for the sake of showmanship. In fact, I’d say they are pushing the politicians to display more of these traits in their speeches.
and a wild card 3rd note) How tired and uninspiring does John McCain look now?