Gerstein, Gordon and political consultant Basil Smikle all agreed that the president’s speech needs to be inspiring but also substantive in articulating key messages — among them that he has a clear plan for addressing the economy if given a second term. But, Smikle added, “While his speech should be motivating and reassuring to Democrats, it should really be geared toward disaffected voters — especially independents.”
This is particularly challenging because, as Gerstein pointed out, people most likely to watch conventions are those most interested in politics and a specific political party, which means in some ways that the president will be preaching to the choir. But Gerstein added that media coverage of a speech’s key highlights can have an impact and reach those not watching the convention, something that the heavy coverage, and praise, of first lady Michelle Obama’s convention speech this week proves.
According to Gerstein, this leaves the president with quite a balancing act: He must fire up loyal Democratic voters who are enthusiastic about some of his more partisan policies without alienating the very independent voters whom Smikle notes Obama needs to reach.
A tough act, for sure, but not impossible, particularly for someone Gordon dubbed one of “the best orators” there is. But ultimately, the experts agree that speeches don’t win elections — a candidate’s overall package does. This means that a speech essentially becomes one chapter in the story told of a candidate — albeit an important one.
History is littered with great orators who ran for president and never won, among them the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sen. Kennedy. But Gordon acknowledged that today’s social media landscape means that the impact of a great speech or a bad one can be felt more immediately, and spread virally in a way that did not exist in previous campaigns.
This is why news outlets declared, “Twitter Elects Michelle Obama President of Speeches,” after the first lady’s convention triumph, while “Eastwooding,” in which people took photos with empty chairs, became an instant online meme, and an embarrassing online souvenir of the RNC. So if President Obama delivers the speech of his life — one that inspires the hopes and dreams of Americans while simultaneously reassuring them of his competence in handling the economy, and also drawing sharp contrasts with his opponent — he may not automatically win the election, but he may win the news cycle. Sometimes that is almost as important.
Of course, he has some serious competition to win the campaign communications showdown. And so far it appears that the president might end up losing his oratorical crown — not to opponent Mitt Romney but to his own wife, whose DNC speech this week has many believing that the president may not be the most articulate Obama after all.
Keli Goff is The Root’s political correspondent.