Though President Barack Obama’s speech last Tuesday has by now been examined to death, I venture a few observations—more about the style and setting than the substance. Critiques of the latter have been largely unfavorable and unflattering, not much to add there. It seems that Mr. Obama is not pleasing many people these days. He is even beginning to appear to some of his most zealous supporters as, well, almost mortal.
That said, it was the backdrop and delivery of the speech that struck me. This was the first Oval Office address of his nearly 17-month presidency—an interesting fact itself. But before dealing with that, I must ask this question:
What was the deal with his hands?
I found myself distracted by his almost frenetic gesticulation. I couldn’t help but think of Will Farrell’s character, Ricky Bobby, in the movie Talladega Nights. In the past, men talking to the nation from the Oval Office usually held papers (years ago to read them and thereafter as a prop) or at least realized that speaking from behind a desk was not the same thing as delivering a rousing stump speech in a gymnasium.
I know this may sound like nitpicking—and maybe it is to a point. But the nonstop use of his hands during the 18-minute address left the impression in my opinion that he was uncomfortable—even out of place.
Presidents give speeches all the time. They pontificate and pronounce from platforms, podiums, and sometimes pulpits. Presidents have several speechwriters and are seldom at a loss for someone’s words. Occasionally they stray from the prepared remarks and “chase rabbits” (an old term for preachers meandering through a sermon)—though Mr. Obama seems to do this at his own peril and with the collective “Yikes!” of his staff.
Speeches in the Oval Office and from behind the presidential desk are designed to be a cut above the rest and are usually reserved for the most serious issues and somber moments. Before the age of television, the most dramatic way for a chief executive to maximize the image of the presidency in crucial national moments was to travel up the boulevard to address Congress. Woodrow Wilson spoke there about making the world safe for democracy in 1917, and Franklin Roosevelt, who did not actually talk to the country on December 7, 1941, spoke there the next day about that date that would live in infamy.