Should Barack Obama Lose The Teleprompter?
One of the questions I’ve been asked the most during radio interviews and speeches over the past two years is this: Should President Obama ditch the teleprompter?
Since his days on the campaign trail, critics – mostly, but not exclusively from the political right – have mocked the President for using a teleprompter. Today, I’ll look at the two main arguments his critics make – one valid, one not.
ARGUMENT ONE: THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
The first argument against using a teleprompter comes from partisan critics who seem to believe the President is a Manchurian candidate capable only of reading beautiful text prepared by others.
A typical argument from that camp can be found in a 2009 editorial in the conservative Washington Times:
“Is President Obama able to conduct a news conference without a teleprompter? Is he an automaton in answering questions?…[t]eleprompter screens at the events scrolled not only his opening remarks, but also statistics and information he could use to answer questions.”
I find that argument unpersuasive at best and insidious at worst, as it seems to suggest President Obama would be unable to function as a communicator without the use of pre-scripted words loaded into a teleprompter. That he writes many of his own major speeches and regularly gives media interviews without a prompter goes without mention.
Presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower have used a teleprompter, and few critics have attacked them for using one. That President Obama relies on data loaded on a teleprompter to answer questions is functionally no different than jotting statistics down on a note card, and doesn’t suggest in any way he is an “automaton.”
I can’t help thinking that this meme was born of a clever political strategy. In an effort to remove an opponent’s competitive edge, strategists often attack their rival’s greatest strength. Since President Obama receives high marks from the public when he delivers a powerful speech, his opponents have incentive to undercut the public’s perception of his effectiveness as a speaker.
Finally, his critics say that although his predecessors have used a teleprompter, none have relied on it so frequently. That’s a fair point, and one that segues nicely into the second argument.
ARGUMENT TWO: LOSING HIS CONNECTION
The second argument is that President Obama loses his connection with the American people when he speaks with a teleprompter. That strikes me as a more valid criticism.
The job of public speakers is to elevate the text — if they don’t, they may as well just run off some copies of the transcript and let the audience read it for themselves. Too many times, President Obama has appeared to be reading – not delivering – a speech. And his critics are right that it’s hurting his connection with the American people.
After a September Oval Office address about Iraq, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews commented:
“…if he doesn’t get rid of that damn teleprompter, it’s like an eye test. He’s just reading words now. It’s separating him from us.”
And from a 2009 story in Politico:
“It’s just something presidents haven’t done,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential historian. ”…in a way, it stands in the middle between the audience and the president because his eye is on the teleprompter.”
President Obama has delivered some amazing speeches with the use of a teleprompter (e.g. his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, his 2008 speech accepting the Democratic nomination). He has also given some lackluster speeches with the teleprompter (e.g. his 2009 speech on Iraq, countless everyday speeches).
I’m not convinced that the teleprompter itself is the problem, but rather his use of it. When he’s on, he’s awesome. When he’s off, he’s soporific.
If the President were my client, I’d want to experiment with other formats for his everyday speeches. He’s seemingly overly-reliant on the prompter, so I’d want to test him in other formats, such as reading from prepared printed text and preparing looser remarks on note cards that allow air for extemporaneous comments or anecdotes. If he insists on continuing to use the prompter, he might want to insert a couple of holes in his text to tell a personal story, helping to add a more personal touch to an otherwise aloof speech.
Still, I can’t shake the sense that this is primarily a discussion fueled by partisan opponents. Just as it was unfair for critics to suggest President Bush was being fed comments by Karl Rove through an earpiece during a presidential debate, it’s unfair to spend so much time castigating President Obama for deploying a device used by almost every president since 1953.