Obama's incredible charismatic force

TAHU POTIKI
Last updated 07:40 09/11/2012

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Tahu Potiki

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OPINION: I recall listening to Barack Obama making his victory speech four years ago and being moved to believe that he was a man capable of delivering change.

I clearly wasn't alone and he obviously has that incredible charismatic force that is generally necessary to be successful in modern politics.

The quagmire of United States politics has plainly compromised his ability to deliver the vision and he has been frustrated and, quite possibly, ashamed that he has made so many promises he could not keep. Personally, I find it embarrassing enough to break a New Year's resolution about diet or exercise that I have only shared with a couple of people, let alone have a few billion judge my failure.

As a basically unaffected party, I have been disappointed that something extraordinary hasn't happened during Obama's watch but the US system of government is apparently designed to moderate power and ensure no-one can do anything extraordinary.

However, his campaign has managed to keep a critical constituency engaged and many voters absolutely loyal as he triumphs again.

Without a doubt, his oratorical skills are sublime. Despite all the knowledge we carry about his previous term, the struggle to deliver on his promises, and the balloon of hope so obviously deflated, he has still managed to bring me back across the line once again with his victory speech.

He uses simple but dramatic language delivered with ease, "We have fought our way back. [pause] We have picked ourselves up."

Even when he is talking about things such as bottom-up as opposed to top-down economics, that don't make a lot of sense to the common man, he still manages to draw applause based purely on delivery.

Of course, he is also a man of conviction and substance. He is now an African American icon and people see him as much closer to the ground than any Republican but, ultimately, an American president clearly requires the ability to be eloquent, confident and inspirational in their speech-making to give them the edge.

Contrast this with what we are used to in New Zealand politics.

Every week I download a British radio show that goes out as a podcast. Imagine my surprise when listening to Frank Skinner make an attack on New Zealand's prime minister for daring to pass comment on David Beckham's intellect.

As is now widely known, but adamantly denied, John Key was reported as suggesting that David Beckham was as "thick as batshit".

Very funny references to the incident were constantly made during the podcast and the comedians analysed the situation in some detail. They concluded that it was perfectly all right for the British to call him thick but not for some potty-mouthed leader from the Antipodes.

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There is clearly a fair bit of distance between the high level speech-making of a US president and the careless quips of our prime minister.

Now many senior politicians, all over the planet, are susceptible to making thoughtless comments which they quickly regret. But perhaps the Kiwi audience is a little more forgiving than most. I suspect most are possibly more comfortable with a quick-witted, throw- away comment than they are with a political sermon.

I don't recall any of our recent party leaders attempting to rally the masses with profound visionary statements, well-timed pregnant pauses, an over-abundance of attention paid to spouses and children and plenty of references to God. It sounds more like Brian Tamaki than John Key. But in a US political speech, you won't get away with anything less.

The height of New Zealand political oratory tends to be reserved for maiden speeches, parliamentary debates and the marae.

Maiden speeches are a moment to share personal vision, speak of those who have inspired and to reflect on the supports that have surrounded the new member as he or she has ascended the political ladder. These are perfect ingredients to build a heart-and-soul-winning speech.

The debating chamber, though, plays to the strengths of some more than others. When two proficient speakers contest a subject that raises their passion and the debate is allowed to flow as much as the rules allow, then the exchange can be truly captivating. It is generally less inspirational than enjoyable but there is plenty of room for the sarcasm, cynicism and pun-making that Kiwis genuinely get pleasure from.

The marae-based whaikorero is accessible only to Maori language speakers but the poetry, religious references and deliberate attempts to persuade listeners to the speaker's view are very similar to the US speeches. It is an entire performance.

Of course, speeches are merely words and Obama has four more years to see if he can back them up.

- The Press

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