Oratory, Bore-atory: Obama, Romney and Political Rhetoric in 2012

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Speechwriters spanning the Nixon era to the Clinton agree that presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney is not the guy you call if you want tears brought to your audience’s eyes. This is man, after all, who started a speech in Ohio this week with the line, “Now, as you can tell, we’re in a factory.” Barack Obama meanwhile has the potential to outdo a room full of freshly sliced onions. Still, that doesn’t mean campaign speeches will be a cakewalk for the President this cycle, or that Romney’s style can’t work in his favor.

Obama’s and Romney’s rhetorical styles share plenty. They both rely on trusty tricolons, rhetorical questions and cliches. And both have embraced plain speaking, using language that’s at the 7th or 8th-grade reading level. They’re also subject to similar critiques. “The criticisms that have been thrown at President Obama over the last few years about his speaking style—that he’s emotionally detached, that he’s too professorial,” says former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol, “Mitt Romney’s got every one of those problems.”

But those criticisms have been leveled at Obama as President more than when he was a candidate. In 2008, Obama spoke about broad, inspiring visions of the country. “You can do that when you’re a candidate,” says Peter Robinson, former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. “But once you’re President of the United States, you have to shift from purely inspirational material to polemics. … You have to find ways of relating matter that is, frankly, often quite boring.”

It’s the gap between “Yes we can!” and “Eat your peas.” And as an incumbent who needs to defend his own policies and convince people things could be worse, Obama will need to spoon-feed audiences a certain amount of peas. “He tends to focus on trying to use the force of his style, the level of his voice, the timbre,” says Ken Khachigian, a former speechwriter for Richard Nixon and the chief speechwriter for Reagan. “Revisiting the same style he used in 2008 … tends to look less presidential.”

This is where the economy may come into play. If the economy is improving as the election wears on, Obama will have more opportunity to inspire, engaging in collective back-slapping and capitalizing on renewed hope. While if the recovery stumbles, if unemployment ticks back up and confidence deflates, that means Obama will have fewer opportunities to conjure the moving candidate and more explaining to do: people will be focused on the frustrating present. “If the economy goes down,” says Robinson, “he’s in rhetorical trouble. … The feeling at that point will be, we need somebody to fix the problem. We need a plumber. We need a mechanic.”

Romney’s speaking style, try as he might, often seems forced and rather wooden; people often comment on how presidential he looks, but he moves like Woody from Toy Story. Former speechwriters say there’s only so much that can be done about that. “He’s just not capable of transporting people where he wants them to go,” says Shesol. “You can’t change somebody’s basic style,” says Khachigian. “He is who he is.” Robinson agrees: “People can get better. Mitt Romney is studying up. At the same time, it’s paint-by-numbers. It’s just not in him to be an artist with words.”

But if the economy gets worse, more Americans may be drawn to a dry Mr. Fix-It, someone better suited to budgets than banquets. Rousing oratorical skill is not something people require in a good plumber or mechanic. In fact, Robinson says, stiffness could seem like proof that Romney would be a more effective manager. “If the Romney people are sensitive to this, they’ll say ‘Our guy is a terrific executive, and his speeches reflect his principal strengths. He can handle detail. There’s nothing flashy about him,’” he says. “They’d even spin his inability to be truly inspirational.”

Of course, Romney still needs to make his audiences feel as well as think. He can achieve that by capitalizing on frustrations that voters have about Obama. He is not going “to get his audience swept away by emotion and belief in Mitt Romney as some kind of political savior,” Shesol says. “His goal is to press the right buttons and make his audience mad enough that they will turn out to vote against this President.”