A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
In The Shadows
Speech By: President Barack Obama Title: Wall Street Reform Date: April 22, 2010 Location: Cooper Union Text Posted:State of Politics Blog
Put simply - this was not one of the President’s more effective, or dynamic speeches. Given the pre-speech hype by the White House, and its importance to his legislative agenda - especially since the passage of health care failed to deliver a bounce in public opinion polls - one would have expected otherwise.
As the White House press pool report noted: “Apart from loud cheers and applause when the president walked in, the speech was heard in mostly silence apart from the flutter of camera shutters." This is more notable because a number of local politicians, most of them members of the President’s own party, were in the audience.
There really was not much memorable about this speech. No great catch phrases stand out. It was delivered without great passion, and received in like manner. It was as if the President had left his great oratorical skills, and truly, such they are, back in the Oval office.
In some sense, this speech was delivered amid long shadows. As he notes in the opening paragraph, Cooper Union is basically in the shadows of Wall Street. But other shadows are cast on the Great Hall at Cooper Union. Six future Presidents, and three incumbent Presidents have spoken from that stage. President Obama is the only one who falls into both categories. From that stage, an aspiring politician from Illinois gave the speech that would make him President - exactly a century and a half ago. Then, it was a lanky fellow who wore a stove-pipe hat.
Obama even refers to shadows as part of his speech: “these markets operated in the shadows of our economy,” and maintains his proposed reforms “would bring complex financial dealings out of the shadows;”.
Perhaps these shadows obscured the perspective of his speech writers. But this was not an outstanding effort to justify greater government involvement in an essential facet of the American economy.
Whether you support these reforms or oppose them; welcome greater government control over the finance industry, or abhor the very prospect; it is disappointing the President did not make a more forceful case for this key element in his legislative agenda.
One sentence in the next-to-last paragraph did garner my attention. “In the end, our system only works – our markets are only free – when there are basic safeguards that prevent abuse, that check excess, that ensure that it is more profitable to play by the rules than to game the system.” Yes it is a summation, but to my mind it should have been punched up, and inserted as the second paragraph. It could have been the pillar around which the rest of the speech was built. Instead, it meanders until it reaches this summing up paragraph, By that time, the potential power of the speech was lost.
He does spend three of his 30 paragraphs - ten percent - slamming lobbyists. That will be the topic of a separate Bully Pulpit post. Believe me.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.