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.
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.