Obama and the Teleprompter: Don't Buy the Conservative Talking Points

The president uses prepared remarks in speeches? Heaven forefend!

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Politico has a story about President Obama's use of teleprompters. Actually it's not so much a story as a contrivance, and grist for the right wing mill.

The nut of the Politico story:

Obama's reliance on the teleprompter is unusual—not only because he is famous for his oratory, but because no other president has used one so consistently and at so many events, large and small.

Emphasis on Obama's use of teleprompters has long been a right wing (and, I suppose, pro-Hillary) anti-Obama talking point, the implicit criticism being that since he's such a good speaker he should be able to work without prepared remarks. Inability to do so, one supposes, is supposed to indicate that he is merely an empty vessel—an actor reading someone else's fancy words.

Not surprisingly, conservative bloggers have picked up on the report. One speechwriter-turned-blogger wrote:

... at some point people may begin to wonder why the most gifted orator to hit the White House in some time hasn't taken the training wheels off.

Let's be clear on the criticism here: The president uses prepared remarks. Horrors.

The teleprompter is a fancy version of a prepared text. Used skillfully, it enables a speaker to deliver a speech more effectively because one does not have to look down periodically to read one's speech. But it's an acquired skill, and not one easily learned, which is why presidents (and others) are sometimes loath to use the thing. Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to use one and hated it: He thought that it could work if the speaker could control the pace at which the text scrolls by. But again the important point here is that using a teleprompter means that the prepared text scrolls by on a screen rather than on pages in front of the speaker. That's it.

Among the modern presidents, extemporaneous versus reading-prepared remarks skills varied. FDR was exceptional with a prepared speech and could also ad-lib; Truman was terrible tied to a text but very effective off the cuff; JFK was at ease both ways (his "ich bin ein Berliner" speech was mostly extemporized); Nixon preferred to speak without prepared remarks, instead memorizing an outline and then speaking without a text; Reagan was a master with a prepared speech and was OK off the cuff so long as a quip or anecdote would suffice, but extemporizing with substance could be problematic; Clinton was well-known for his ability to extemporize (recall his speech to Congress when the teleprompter had the wrong speech).

But let's return to Obama and unpack the charge against him: He uses prepared remarks.

So it's a fault that he values words enough to prepare them in advance and then stick to the rhetorical plan? The fact that he's the most gifted orator of his generation is the residue of hard work and design, not of coasting on raw talent. That's to be commended.

The teleprompter criticism implies that he is merely a fine voice delivering someone else's speeches. But Obama is an accomplished author in his own right and is widely reported to be deeply engaged in the composition of his own speeches. And few who have watched his performances at press events and town hall-type meetings since he took office could argue that he is an empty suit.

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