There are many things that could be said about another masterful performance by Obama in front of the Washington press corps (if you look at previous critiques I’ve said quite a lot already). He would make a great stand-up (I’m sure he doesn’t write this stuff, though; he can still seem a little too full of himself; but what a terrific, engaging natural smile); and he instinctively knows how to give the audience exactly what they want (a bit like that chap Tony Blair…whether you like him or not, TB knew how to work the room).
As ever, some of the gags were laugh-out-loud funny and, as I type this, some of the others in the reception area of this London hotel are giving me strange looks. One of the best is when he tells of he and the First Lady at an Easter event, when he was giving out candy to the kids and Michelle "snatched it right back off them….snatched it!" I think the second "snatched it" was extemporaneous but, as ever, exquisitely timed.
For this performance I’d like to concentrate on just two things: Obama’s near impeccable timing, and 'The Donald'.
Timing is about pause and pace. It’s also about what you do when you are either staying silent or playing with the tempo. For the first Obama makes great use of that aforementioned terrific smile; and for the second there is a looseness and coolness that invites everyone to relax, because the man behind the lectern is in the zone and it’s all going to be just fine. He is a mere mortal, though, as his nervy delivery a few years ago in the first half of his seminal speech, "A More Perfect Union" showed. Have a look and you’ll see that for the first half he only gets six out of ten.
When in front of a microphone in a big room, pace is often about keeping it slow enough to allow the audience to know you are in control of yourself and them, and to give them the chance to ‘get it’. So, rushing your delivery sucks energy out of the room because firstly the assembled multitudes will think you are nervous and start to worry you might take a 'whitey'; and secondly because going too fast can prevent them laughing, since they just don’t understand what you are talking about as they can’t keep up.
When Obama spoke recently to the great and the good in Westminster Hall some thought it was more like a sermon than a speech. This is true enough, since the subject matter on that historic occasion demanded it. But so did the echo in the venue. His delivery on that occasion was in some measure dictated by the acoustics of that historic place and, like all great speakers, Obama tunes into everything necessary to allow him to be at his best.
At it’s simplest level, pause allows the audience time to laugh. Obama knows that if he is talking, they are unlikely to be laughing. Or if they are, that laughter will soon stop. All good speakers phrase their oratory well for sure, and pause is your punctuation: commas, full-stops, exclamation and question marks, colons and semi-colons, new paragraphs. Pause does all of these for you and is your greatest ally when performing: if nothing else it gives the audience time to react and you time to think.
From the beginning, with his "My FELLOW Americans" he looks, smiles and stops, letting his clever audience know that they know all the birth certificate stuff was an irrelevance. Sometimes it’s necessary to wait for your audience to laugh; if you can do that it’s a great confidence booster for them, as they know they are safe in the hands of someone who really knows what they are doing. There is a big pause when he explains his "birth video" is a cartoon, because the Fox News table, for example, may not process that information as quickly as the rest of the room. In that one or two second pause Obama is establishing his mastery over his material, and over his audience. Look at the huge smile, the relaxed shoulders, the notion that he has lots of good things to say and he has all the time in the world to say it.
That… Ladies and gentlemen… is timing.
The Donald. For those of you who don’t know, Donald Trump was one of the main protagonists in getting the Obama birth certificate controversy to the top of the news agenda.
What were the best things about the humiliation of Donald Trump? His hair was never mentioned once and The Donald never got top billing, or anywhere near it: he was not much more than a footnote. The comb-over of The Donald was an open goal, but Obama never touched a hair on his barnet. He never went for the obvious because he has too much class, but also because had he done so the right wing press might have been able to make some sport over invective that was too personal and demeaning to the office of The President. When I used to debate, we never personally insulted the other side and kept our smart comments as humour against ourselves and team mates.
The Donald never got a mention until half way through his speech, though of course there was much that would give him cause to squirm in his seat from the opening three words. He never got any personal attention until half-way to illustrate that, in the great scheme of things, when clever people are trying to run the country and grapple with very important issues, he really is an irrelevance. What does it do to your fledgling political career when you have hundreds laughing at you? Not very much, and one does wonder what a serious debate between The Donald and Barack Obama might look like, though we are unlikely to find out.
Essentially there were three jokes in these three minutes on Trump: one lampooning his nonsense about the birth certificate by conflating it with his questioning of the moon landings; another skewering his leadership qualities; and a third trashing his personal style, but as I’ve said, not his hairstyle.
The moon landings gag juxtaposes what is on The Donald’s mind and occupies his time, with what needs to be the concern of The President. At the beginning of his evisceration of The Donald there is also the ‘accusation’ that his likely opponent from the Republican Party in the next Presidential Election, Mitt Romney, enacted universal healthcare in his home state (he did…). Nice, putting The Donald and Romney next to one another…and not accidental.
We then get a sketch of The Donald in action, pondering the dilemma of who to throw off Celebrity Apprentice during some kind of fast food cook-off: will it be "Lil' Jon, Meatloaf or Gary Busey…"; the names themselves invite a smile. Obama notes that this was the kind of thing that would "keep me up at night".
And finally we are treated to what The Donald might do to The Whitehouse if he ever got there. It was a visual gag, a slide of the seat of power, Trump-Tower style. Colourful maybe, but also gauche, plastic and frivolous.
I think last year’s Press Association speech was funnier. The element of surprise last year was when Obama burst on the scene as a comic. This might still be at play here, but the second video in this year’s speech was a bit long and that lost Obama momentum. This really did not matter much, because his nineteen minutes is still a great template if you are tasked with delivering a vote of thanks that has to inform and entertain, then finish off with a serious message.
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