Obama's teleprompters too much?
As he introduced his new choice for secretary of health and human services in the East Room this week, President Obama turned his head from right to left, but he was not looking at the audience. He was reading from two teleprompters strategically set up outside the tight television camera shot.
The New York Times
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The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — As he introduced his new choice for secretary of health and human services in the East Room this week, President Obama turned his head from right to left, but he was not looking at the audience. He was reading from two teleprompters strategically set up outside the tight television camera shot.
When he was done, the teleprompters quietly began retracting down to the floor. As she stepped forward to make her remarks, the nominee, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, seemed momentarily surprised.
"Don't mind the little ... " Obama said with a smile.
"It's disappearing!" she said, jokingly.
Presidents have been using teleprompters for more than half a century, but none have relied on them as extensively as Obama has so far. While presidents typically have used them for their most important speeches — an inaugural, State of the Union or Oval Office address — Obama uses them for routine announcements and even for the opening statement of his only news conference so far.
He used them during a visit to a Caterpillar plant in Peoria, Ill. He used them to make brief remarks opening his "fiscal responsibility summit." He used them to discuss endangered species, even recalling a visit to national parks as an 11-year-old. "That was an experience I will never forget," he said, reading from the teleprompter.
For Obama, a teleprompter means message discipline, sticking close to the intended words. While some presidents prefer extemporizing, Obama likes the message to be just so. The best-selling author has helped write many of his major speeches, so he presumably feels a certain fidelity to the crafted text.
Michael Waldman, who was President Clinton's chief speechwriter, said Obama was one of the few politicians able to use a teleprompter effectively.
"If he were just reading something someone handed him and didn't understand what it said, that would be one thing," Waldman said. "But I don't think anybody doubts that he's expressing his own thoughts."
Yet Bradley Blakeman, a former aide to President George W. Bush, said the teleprompter made Obama look robotic. "He is extremely scripted," Blakeman said, "and he is cautious to the max and afraid of gaffes."
Presidents have long had a love-hate relationship with teleprompters. Harry S. Truman refused to use them. In 1993, when Clinton addressed Congress on health care, the wrong speech was fed into the teleprompter. It took aides a nightmarish seven minutes to fix the problem while Clinton winged it. Some thought he did better without the script.
Bush, whose unscripted gaffes were legendary, used a teleprompter for his 2002 speech to the United Nations on Iraq. But when the speech scrolled across the screens, the key line about seeking a new Security Council resolution was missing. Bush noticed and ad-libbed it. The trouble was that he said he would seek "the necessary resolutions," plural, which later gave the Europeans ammunition to press him to return to the Security Council one more time.
Obama had never used a teleprompter until his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, but he relied on them regularly on the campaign trail last year. After one speech, he was spotted in a tense exchange with an aide, a flash of temper a spokesman later attributed to a teleprompter malfunction. The machines became a point of attack in the blogosphere, with one critic even setting up a Web site called teleprompterpresident.com to post videos of Obama's stumbling over words when he did not use a teleprompter.
The White House dismissed questions about Obama's use of the machines.
"Whether one uses note cards or a teleprompter, the American people are a lot more concerned about the plans relayed than the method of delivery," said Bill Burton, a spokesman.
Kevin Sullivan, Bush's last White House communications director, said the frequent use of teleprompters risked making Obama look staged. "This is the most gifted and effective communicator of our generation," Sullivan said. "I find it hard to believe he needs it."
But Nicolle Wallace, another former Bush communications director who worked for Sen. John McCain last year, said Obama should stick with success.
"I'd say for a guy known around the world for being as effective as he is at communicating, he shouldn't change a thing," Wallace said.
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