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In part, the difference between Mr. Obama’s campaign and presidential rhetoric reflects the difference between running for office and attempting to govern. Successful candidates take stands, pick fights and draw principled ideological contrasts with opponents, because elections are winner-take-all quests; successful officeholders have to balance that approach with pragmatic, low-key compromise, because making and enforcing laws is anything but.

So as Mr. Obama’s political strategy pivots toward the 2012 election, his speechmaking has begun to show flashes of his former energy - most notably in a jobs bill address to Congress and in a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus in which the president called on his black supporters to “stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying” and get to work.

“As Mr. Obama has come to realize the gravity of his position and the headaches that come with governing, he has toned down his rhetoric to match the reality of his situation,” said Stephen Curtis, a communications professor at Eastern Connecticut State University. “His ideals may be intact, but the reality of what he can accomplish, especially now with a Republican majority in the House and a national mood that does not necessarily favor his plans or his party, has forced him to speak in a more plain fashion.”

From pulpit to PowerPoint

Governing aside, Mr. Obama’s tamped-down rhetoric fits a larger trend of flattened political speech. Start with modern media. Scholars long have argued that electronic communication is essentially “cool” - that is, while an in-person orator needs an amplified voice, a speaker on radio or television is better served by restraint. The rip-roaring address of yore became the fireside chat of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a personal conversation between a politician and each individual audience member.

“In a small television studio, one of the most awkward things you can do is vocalize really loudly,” Mr. McKenna said. “For politicians, that carries over to other venues, even on the campaign stump.”

John Carroll, assistant professor of mass communications at Boston University, said shifts in digital media - to social networking, instant messaging and a round-the-clock news cycle - have further dulled the public’s ability to process complex argument and formal rhetoric, while fostering a taste for addresses that are simple, punchy and visual.

“We live in the age of Twitter,” Mr. McKenna said. “If MLK was alive today, I’d like to think that he wouldn’t have a Twitter feed.”

“Gotcha” journalism - as amplified by often partisan 24-hour cable news, the blogosphere and social media - also has had a chilling effect on unorthodox, unscripted or otherwise risk-taking rhetoric. “We’re living in an age of gaffes, where anything that varies from the usual can be used against you,” Mr. Carroll said. “The safest road is the one with the least rhetorical ornamentation. You narrow the possibility for people to criticize you from either side of the political spectrum. Of course, your words are turned into oatmeal.”

If the media landscape has changed, so too has the political climate. Faced with a closely divided electorate in which less ideological, more pragmatic independents often form the deciding swing vote, politicians need to look both ways before crossing. Speakers like King essentially delivered sermons intended to challenge and provoke. Modern politicians are delivering poll-driven marketing messages designed to satisfy diverse constituencies while alienating as few listeners as possible.

When King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, he included references to the Old Testament and Shakespeare, Lincoln’s second inaugural address and the Declaration of Independence, weaving a symbolic tapestry that gave his words more power and resonance. Similarly, Reagan’s reference to “a shining city on a hill” borrowed from Kennedy, who borrowed from Puritan leader John Winthrop, who in turn borrowed from the Sermon on the Mount.

In contrast, Mr. Carroll said, contemporary listeners largely lack a lofty set of shared cultural references.

“Forget the Bible, Shakespeare, [Charles] Dickens,” he said. “The common currency now are the messages you receive through marketing. ‘Tastes great, less filling.’ Remember [1984 Democratic presidential nominee] Walter Mondale asking [primary opponent] Gary Hart, ‘Where’s the beef?’ That’s universal in politics now.”

So, too, it seems is the deflation from King’s gripping speech - the final crescendo delivered without notes, drawing on King’s background as a Baptist preacher and two decades of public speaking - to today’s humdrum addresses, from the charismatic Mr. Obama of “Yes we can” to the businesslike Mr. Obama of laundry-list economic proposals.

Mr. Sharpton - no stranger to a King-like speaking style - said that development isn’t entirely lamentable.

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