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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Political Consultants Give Obama Speech High Marks -- But Wonder if You Can Be Memorable When No One Remembers Anything You Said

Posted By on Tue, Jan 20, 2009 at 11:25 AM

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It's hard to be nostalgic when you can't remember anything. And a handful of San Francisco's top political consultants are now pondering if it's possible for President Barack Obama to have delivered a "memorable" address when they had trouble recalling its specific lines even 15 minutes after he uttered it.

Oh, they'll remember this day -- the unbridled joy of shedding George W. Bush once and for all, the hat Aretha Franklin borrowed from the Statue of Liberty, the perfection of a wheelchair-bound Dick Cheney resembling "It's a Wonderful Life" villain Henry F. Potter -- but the actual wording of Obama's inaugural ... well, good thing it's already on the Internet.

"My first impression is that if someone was looking for that "ask not" or "fear itself" moment, they didn't get it," says Sam Lauter, a principal at Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst, Lauter & Partners. "I have to admit, I was listening for that "ask not" moment. I wanted that one. When I realized I might not get one, I reflected on the entirety of the speech and felt it was the right speech for this time ... I will always remember that he laid it all out and addressed every issue out there."

In our quick-turnaround, insatiable age of endless media coverage, it remains to be seen if Obama's apparent lack of ready soundbites will come back to soundbite him in the rear. City political consultant Jim Ross points out, however, that A.P. stories the day after John F. Kennedy's inauguration made no mention of JFK's now-famous "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" line. The lesson: "If anything timeless can come out of this, it won't be determined by today's news reports but by history. Trying to to make that one memorable line could have been a trap. Instead of a historic 12 words, he made a historic speech."
Lauter noted that the structure of Obama's speech didn't differ much from his typical fare: "His approach to things is, 'Here's how I view the situation and now we're gonna talk about it.'" Yet several consultants queried by SF Weekly noticed a newfound gravitas from the president.

Charles Sheehan, a consultant with Whitehurst Mosher Campaign Strategy and Media, was surprised that Obama thrust right into the meat of his speech with little dilly-dallying. He also did so with a "weightiness" lacking from his prior speeches -- America's woes have always been our problem, but now they're really Obama's problem.

Sheehan also noticed how sharply Obama contrasted his views of foreign policy with those of his predecessor ("To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the

silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history;

but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."). "He was addressing the world as much as the U.S.," said Sheehan. But, Ross notes, he was addressing the U.S. first and foremost -- "Obama has the ability, like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had, to go above Congress and people in D.C. and go directly to the American people. I think the speech today basically sent a message to us and the leaders in Washington: 'I'm going to try to fix the problems and if people get in my way, I'm going to go to you and ask for your help.'"

Obama's speech -- like the rest of his presidency -- was burdened with ludicrous obstacles and comically high hopes even from before the new president uttered "So help me God." But while we know Obama can make a good speech, can the American people listen to the none-too-veiled notes about hard times, compromise, and sacrifice? David Latterman isn't so sure.

The founder of Fault Line Analytics wonders "how some of the rhetoric from this speech and this campaign will trickle down to real people and situations like we have in San Francisco."

And while Obama lauded the generosity of Americans in cutting their work hours to save colleagues' jobs, this idea has not tested well among San Francisco's union workforce. You can wave the flag and cheer Obama all you want -- but if you don't participate in the compromise and belt-tightening he talked about --  the "change" may not be so grand.

"This is an important moment in history, but it will pass. And what translates down? Is it just going to be a bunch of people going to Washington and saying 'Gimme, gimme gimme'?" pondered Latterman. "I'm not worried about what Obama is going to do. He believes this stuff. What I'm interested in is, all these people who worship at the Church of Obama -- what are they going to do?"

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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