Prompted by Robert Schlesinger

As Vinca mentioned below, Robert Schlesinger offered his opinion about President Obama’s use of the teleprompter – and given Schlesinger’s thorough knowledge of White House speech history, his opinion should be given weight. But I don’t think he’s entirely right.

The crux of Schlesinger’s argument is that there’s no difference between delivering a speech using prepared remarks on paper and delivering a speech using prepared remarks on a teleprompter. As far as the text is concerned, that’s true.

But there are two key differences between paper and prompter:

First, the teleprompter creates a barrier between the speaker and the audience. When the audience is vast – in the thousands – and people aren’t expecting to feel particularly close to the speaker, this is a non-issue.

But when the venue is more informal or intimate – in the East Room, say, or at a press conference – the teleprompter makes it harder for the speaker to connect with the audience. He becomes the person at the cocktail party who constantly looks over your shoulder as he’s talking to you.

Second, it’s easier to deviate from the text when using paper. I agree with Schlesinger that using prepared text is a sign that the president (and his team) have given thoughtful consideration to what it is they want to say.

But sometimes an extemporaneous thought may occur, or the audience may react in a way that lends itself to a comment or observation. Engaging the audience makes the speaker seem more comfortable and accessible. It’s a lot easier to react on the fly, then return to your prepared text, when you’re not tied to the teleprompter. (A former colleague referred to these little diversions as “cul-de-sacs” in the speech.)

Just to clarify, I don’t think President Obama’s use of the teleprompter means he’s “an empty vessel” (though my “training wheels” comment was a bit glib).

Nor do I think this is an issue manufactured by right-wing critics of the president (though they’re certainly building on it). In addition to the Politico story Schlesinger and I referenced, Peter Baker wrote about the issue in the New York Times last week, and a quick Google search shows CNN blogging about it back in September.

Rather, I am genuinely curious about why President Obama uses the prompter as much as he does. And, as I mentioned before, I think it can impair his delivery when used in the wrong setting.

In other words, I don’t think using the teleprompter diminishes the president as a leader, but I do think it sometimes diminishes him as a speaker.

The White House’s defensiveness about the issue only fans the flames. Instead of huffily telling reporters that “the American people are a lot more concerned about the plans relayed than the method of delivery,” (duh) why doesn’t one of the president’s spokespeople just explain why he likes the teleprompter?

As Mr. Schlesinger’s history confirms, there’s no shame in using it.

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  • Michael

    Really!?! Let me get this straight... The right wing has an issue with the president preferring to ready from a teleprompter rather than a piece of paper? I'm tired of the idiotic comment that he struggles when not reading from a teleprompter. While there are times that he stammers while trying to find the right words, he obviously has a firm grasp of the complicated issues that he's talking about and he explains them at length while answering questions.

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