These days, important speakers tend to read their speeches off teleprompters. This can be somewhat misleading: The speech sounds exceedingly fluent, the speaker never looks at a piece of paper, even the most complex sentences trip off his tongue without stumbling, including quotes from other people - but the public watching on television cannot see that he is reading his speech from a written text. This is a technique that can be learned, practiced and improved. It requires concentration, acting ability and a heartfelt prayer that no technical failure causes the words rolling across the screen before his eyes to suddenly halt, leaving him helpless, not knowing how to continue.
Barack Obama also reads his speeches from teleprompters. But despite this, he has that something extra that gives his appearances a quality of leadership that has virtually disappeared in the television and Internet era: charisma. This is the ability to broadcast authority and plant a conviction in the listeners' hearts that the speaker is worthy of leading them.
Obama knows how to turn his head from side to side; he has teleprompters on both sides. He has excellent control over his bass voice and knows how to give it the necessary power or to make it tremble as if choked up by emotion. Like all great speakers, he does not speak to the millions who are listening to him; he speaks to each and every one of them. Every one of them can identify with him and believe in him, because when Barack Obama speaks, it seems as if he himself believes what he is saying: He is a statesman and a loving father, someone who gets things done, and above all, someone who has realized the American dream. He did not stress his origins excessively, and he insisted over and over that he is not a revolutionary, but a loyal son of his nation's founding fathers, in whose spirit he was elected.
Since John F. Kennedy, there has never been a president who entered the White House accompanied by such great expectations. Therefore, it naturally makes sense to compare his inaugural address with the one Kennedy gave in January 1961. The two speeches are very different. Kennedy gave a speech that was directed almost entirely at the world, since those were the days of the Cold War. Obama spoke mainly to America. It was not America's international standing that took center stage in his speech, but the need to rehabilitate American society.
Kennedy's speech was built as a series of slogans and adages, of which the most famous was almost fascist: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." His sentences were short, and almost every sentence was a potential applause line. Obama's speech was far more serious, complex, here and there a bit academic, almost exhausting: Alongside the tears, one could see somebody yawning on the television screen.
To Obama's credit, it must be said that it is hard to locate the one sentence in his speech that will become a slogan. It was if he wanted to say that the situation was too serious for such rhetorical gimmicks. It was a grave speech, by the president of a wounded, battered country with eight terrible years behind it and challenges and hope ahead.
When the Americans chose a black president, it was as if they had taken and passed a matriculation exam. And that is what their new president told them yesterday: We are big boys and girls now. We know what we need to do. Deliberately, and wisely, Obama chose not to repeat the words that brought him to the White House. But his entire speech could be summed up by them: Yes we can.
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