Obama “Stutters”

Last night while dining with a friend, I was asked the following question, “Where do you think Obama got his speaking ability?”

We were discussing his remarkably polished speaking style which seems to be wooing so many people into his camp and leaving his opponents with, at least, a grudging respect.

Not having really given the question posed any significant thought previously, I was at a loss for an intelligent or thought out response but, after considering what I have read about him, my final response was, “Probably his mother.”

It was a “best guess” under the circumstances. From what I’ve read about his mother, although very sketchy, and given her otherwise unconventional nature, I imagine that she might have possessed the qualities of a good salesman including an adroit and agile command of the English language.

Since last night, I’ve given the question further consideration, mentally reviewing the speeches I’ve heard him give. All are very polished … articulate, well presented … and eloquent … a word I and others have used previously to describe his oratorical or declamatory capabilities.

But …

When outside his prepared and polished realm, he looses his composure. He becomes repetitious and hesitant. He “stutters”. When confronted with questions that he is not prepared to answer or is confronted with topics he appears to be uncomfortable with, he “stutters”.

Stuttering and stammering, what is the difference? More significantly, what causes it?

Stuttering is defined as “the compulsive repetition of certain syllables or words” whereas stammering is defined as “complete blocking of some speech”(1). As noted in the reference, both are almost universally accepted to be psychogenic in origin. Stuttering usually first occurs with emotional tension in the three to six year old child and can be considered a transient normal in children of this age. The reference further states when it persists in the older child, referral to a child psychologist or psychiatrist is recommended, the aid of a speech therapist may be needed and the child’s inadequate confidence will need to be bolstered.

According the the Psychiatry reference(2), children who stutter may have conflicts over passivity and aggressiveness. “Speech is regarded as an aggressive function in which the child may attempt through hesitation to control both himself and the audience. The speech pattern eventually becomes habitual, i.e., persists without constant emotional content, and the stutterer needs speech therapy and psychotherapy for help in resolving the emotional conflicts associated with the disorder.”

I think this raises some interesting questions regarding Barack Obama’s eloquent speeches when well crafted and the onset of his stuttering when confronted with questions for which he is unprepared and those with which he is obviously uncomfortable. It could also be the explanation for his avoidance, in general, of unscripted interviews with reporters, his apparent preference for interviews with perceived “friendly” interrogators and his complete avoidance of perceived hostile situations.

So, is Barack Obama’s eloquent speaking ability one that has come naturally to him or one that is the result of extensive efforts to overcome and mask a speech defect rooted in psychological conflicts and deeply rooted in his childhood? If the latter is the case, how has this shaped his career choices and how he may have carefully crafted his public persona? Would it make any difference in his ability to function effectively as president?


1. Silver HK, Kempe CH, Bruyn HB. “Speech Defects”. Handbook of Pediatrics, 12th ed., 1977: p. 172

2. Solomon P, Patch VD. “Child Psychiatry, Speech Problems, Stuttering”. Handbook of Psychiatry, 3rd Ed., 1974: pp. 530-531.


5 Responses

  1. Pardon the very late response to the last comment.

    I’ve known people with extrapyramidal dystonic “stuttering”, including a very successful general surgeon.

    That surgeon, in particular, was prone to stutter in situations in which he was very comfortable but became excited about, but he would also stutter in perfectly normal and casual conversation.

    It’s entirely different from Barack Obama’s stuttering which is exactly the opposite; i.e., psychogenic.

  2. “Your article is great but relates to only one of the four potential causes of stuttering”

    Yes, by the way, the most prevalent. Although the majority of people continues believing that stuttering is mainly psychogenic, it isn’t.

    It’s likely that stuttering represents a special category of extrapyramidal dystonic movement disorder, much like writer’s cramp or spasmodic dysphonia. Also, a strong family history in many cases and male dominance point to a genetic origin.

  3. I became so fixed on the use of the word, “retrograde”, I forgot the main point that “Hilary” was trying to make by referencing the following article:
    Brain anatomy differences in childhood stuttering..

    Your article is great but relates to only one of the four potential causes of stuttering. The article did sound all inclusive, didn’t it? The differential diagnosis on stuttering can be divided into:1)developmental, 2)neurogenic, 3) psychogenic and 4) malingering. For reference see the following abstract:
    Differential diagnosis of stuttering for forensic purposes.

    Hillary, thanks for reminding me of PubMed. I actually found some abstracts dating back to 1969. I wonder if they’re still pertinent and not too “retrograde”. Unfortunately, my scientific German is very rusty and Russian, Polish and Japanese are totally out of the ballpark as well as “no abstract available”.

  4. Thanks for the comment. Sorry I took so long in approving it. I had other things to do today … as in “a life”.

    “Retrograde” … an interesting choice of words … “moving backward, contradictory, having a direction contrary to that of the general motion of similar moving bodies, resulting in a worse state, written from right to left??, backward?, to decline to a worse condition …”. I’m not sure I understand exactly what you mean.

    Yes, my references are aging, but they were handy … as “in my private library”. I’m old and didn’t have to walk that far. And, if I remember correctly, crazy in 1974 and 1977 is still crazy today, just as … the same diagnostic criteria for appendicitis then applies today. Humans haven’t evolved that much in 35 years … and frankly, neither have diagnostics in medicine … unless you think physicians not doing physical exams or taking a history is “an advancement” . Now let’s talk about “retrograde”. That is moving backwards.

    I know that psychiatrists have developed an new nomenclature since then but renaming doesn’t change the underlying problem … just what you call it. Maybe you should be criticizing the Freudian reference since that has been more controversial, even back then … and is a heck of a lot older.

    Remember, just because something is “new” or ‘Modern” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “correct” or “right”. I have heard of the last 30 or 40 years being referred to as the “dumbing down of America”.

    And remember the wheel … we don’t have to keep reinventing it.

  5. “Psychogenic”?! Your references are very retrograde. 1977 and 1974??!! Update yourself: http://tinyurl.com/ypee36

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