Speech Critics Assess Obama's Oratory

"Sound bites help people to remember a speech and think about the larger message of a speech, but they become a distortion if you only remember the fragment," Widmer says. "You can end up with a situation like the presidential primaries where you've got eight people in an Iowa cornfield, all trying to have a striking single sentence in the middle of a speech."

Geoffrey O'Brien, editor of the next edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, says that so far he has 12 President Obama citations planned, but just one since he became president (although he says that could well change).

The passage he wants to include from President Obama's presidency comes from his inaugural speech, when President Obama called the United States "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers." He could not immediately cite any other lines from President Obama's presidential speeches.

Making Lasting Memories

"President Obama is very strong at sort of coolly laying out issues, which may not be memorable, but is effective," O'Brien says. "When he was running for president, he had to draw on a more impassioned style. He was addressing huge crowds of people."

O'Brien says that when he talks about President Obama with young people the phrase they remember is "Yes, We Can," his campaign slogan.

Fred R. Shapiro, who edits the Yale Book of Quotations, mentioned a few phrases from President Obama's inaugural speech that could make the next edition some years from now. He cites President Obama's insistence that "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" in the fight against terror, and that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

Shapiro does not think that any of President Obama's presidential statements have caught on widely with the public, certainly not at the level of then-candidate President Obama's private observation in 2008 that small-town Americans "cling to guns or religion."

"The lines I mentioned from his inauguration have not become very famous," Shapiro says. "And if they're in the next Yale Book of Quotations, it will be more because they were borderline choices than because they were overwhelmingly clear-cut candidates."

No presidential speech since President Kennedy's inaugural, which has 11 mentions in the most recent Yale book, has been so quoted. A Kennedy-Sorensen trademark is chiasmus — what speechwriters call "reversible raincoats," in which the second half of the phrase is a variation on the first half, such as "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."

The stature of Kennedy's speech is one reason it has not been matched. Shesol recalls an agreement among Clinton speechwriters that reversible raincoats should be avoided because Kennedy and Sorensen had so perfected them.

"I think it's very important for people to remember the words. Words have power. A successful speech will resonate and phrases will provide a kind of power in the near term and the longer term," Shesol said. "But, ultimately, it's important to any president to be able to make continually clear who he is, what he believes and where he wants to go."

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