Will Obama soar or bore on Sunday’s King dedication?

Almost 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave arguably the most powerful American political speech of the 20th century: “I Have a Dream.” An impassioned call for racial equality. A soaring vision of social unity. A moral and stylistic tour de force, rife with literary and biblical references, delivered in the urgent, gripping cadence of a Baptist sermon, a 17-minute oratorical masterpiece that remains stirring and resonant to this day.

Almost six months ago, President Obama stood behind a lectern at George Washington University, where he said something about limiting itemized deductions - and appeared to put Vice President Joseph R. Biden to sleep.

In the gulf between the two addresses lies a riddle: Whatever happened to the lofty, emotional, go-for-broke style in American political discourse - from Mr. Obama, whose electrifying speechcraft once made him our time’s most promising heir to that tradition, on down?

With the president set to speak at the rescheduled dedication of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial on Sunday and facing a daunting re-election battle amid a nationwide mood of division and malaise, the answer could have a significant impact on the 2012 campaign.

“I think there has been a loss,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and MSNBC television host. “You still see a few people speak that way [in the black community], but not as many.

Martin Luther King Jr. and  John F. Kennedy gave impassioned speeches in a style that seems to be missing in modern politics. (Associated Press)

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Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy gave impassioned speeches in ... more >

“Even in the white community, where you once had John Kennedy and others, now the speaking [style] is more removed and disconnected. We’ve lost the emotional connection to people.”

From soaring to stodgy

Stemwinders haven’t been the norm for a good while - not in the nation that made Al Gore and Bob Dole serious presidential contenders - but stylish, memorable speeches weren’t always rare.

Williams Jennings Bryan’s rousing “Cross of Gold” address prompted listeners to leap from their seats and bang umbrellas against the floor, propelling him to an 1896 presidential nomination. Two years before King’s “Dream” speech, President Kennedy used his inaugural address to ask the nation to, well, “ask not.” In 1974, Ronald Reagan invoked a now-familiar “shining city on a hill.”

Mr. Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention - an energetic call for national unity during a bitterly contested presidential campaign - made the Illinois state senator an overnight political sensation. In 2008, similarly charged addresses played a major role in Mr. Obama’s defeat of Democratic challenger Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican nominee John McCain en route to the presidency.

At the time, Mr. Obama’s head speechwriter, Jon Favreau, told reporters that he drew inspiration from King and Kennedy. A linguist noted that Mr. Obama used cadences similar to King‘s.

Since taking office, however, Mr. Obama’s major speeches have taken on a businesslike, subdued and even flat effect - less reminiscent of King’s full-throated call and response than of a corporate middle manager giving a regional sales presentation.

In August, a much-discussed New York Times essay by Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen expressed disappointment in Mr. Obama’s presidential rhetoric and dubbed his inaugural address an “extraordinary … failure in storytelling.”

Obama has the skill,” said Stephen McKenna, chairman of the Catholic University Department of Media Studies and editor of “The World’s Greatest Speeches.”

“We saw that soaring style during the campaign. But as president, it has become the language of the boardroom. And in this political atmosphere, I don’t think that Obama’s cool style has served him particularly well.”

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