Barack Obama's oratory skills may have helped him win the White House in 2008, but his speaking prowess could be a liability in this year's presidential election, says Sam Leith, author of Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama. Rhetoric is central to democracy, says Leith. "You win elections by talking to people, by trying to persuade them, not only on what you're going to do, but that you're trustworthy." And, he says, Obama talked his way into the Oval Office with "amazing speeches" that invoked Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., and he even beat out the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. "He just spoke better than everybody else," says the former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]
But while the president's cool, cerebral, professorial rhetoric was a welcome change after George W. Bush's plain-speaking style, it is now drawing criticism for being too "high-style" and "detached" at a time when Main Street is hurting, says Leith.
Meanwhile, presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's less polished speaking style might be a bonus, especially since the former governor has been trying to play down his privileged background. What's more, Romney has done his homework. "Romney always talks about starting up his own business," say Leith. "But the way he presents it and talks about it—it's not dishonest, but he changes the inflection, so he makes it sound like a mom-and-pop shop." This year, says Leith, look for both Obama and Romney to work hard to appear as ordinary as possible.
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