Obama showed up on time, wearing a light blue pinpoint oxford cloth shirt, open at the collar, sleeves rolled up. He breezed through a prepared speech about his energy policy, including initiatives for clean and alternative energy. The crowd warmed to him, punctuating his message with applause. Then he came to the end of his prepared remarks and announced that he would take questions about his speech or any other topic. He took the wireless mic off the stand and walked in front of the podium with the nonchalant grace of a major league slugger gripping his bat and stepping up to the plate.
Obama’s baritone voice filled the open field, shaded by an old willow tree by a little pond. He spoke not only with his voice, but with his hands. And though he is an attorney who took his J.D. at Harvard Law and later taught Constitutional law, his gestures were not those of a trial attorney, binding the jury by casting a spell with a closing argument. Rather, his oratorical gestures were more like those of a preacher conducting a revival and call to baptism down by the river side.
One of Obama’s favorite gestures — throwing his left hand out and up, palm down — suggests anointment, conveying a blessing on the crowd.
The anointing gesture sometimes becomes an open-palmed gesture. Rev. Billy Graham was a master of the open palm; he said it conveyed openness and generosity, not holding anything back.
Sometimes the anointing gesture swoops skyward, beckoning the crowd to aspire to a higher vision.
When Obama laces his fingers around the mic, sometimes his voice quiets, his head lowers, and his eyes squeeze shut, as if he’s offering a prayer of confession. The audience stays with him, inspired by the grand gestures and booming baritone, and drawn even closer in when his voice drops and he thinks out loud.
Generally, when Obama points, it is not an accusatory stab. Nor is it a singling out gesture (“Uncle Sam wants you!”). Usually, when he points, he points upward, indicating a vector to pursue, as if to say, “Follow me to higher ground.”
Obama has a way of slowly cutting his eyes around, suggesting vigilance: awareness of opportunities and dangers. And he is vigilant, mentally and physically. He seems aware of himself, of his audience, and of his affect on his audience. He reads and responds to his listeners’ micro-expressions and postures, varying his cadence and tone.
He listens and responds in real time: several times, as he is speaking, audience members will spontaneously mutter phrases showing how they’re responding. He says America needs a better health care policy than we have seen in the Bush Administration. A senior citizen on the front row, sporting a T-shirt that reads “I’m a health care voter,” remarks: “Better than Bush’s health policy? That’s not hard.” Obama instantly and unconsciously echoes these phrases: “No, that’s not hard.”
This call-and-response oratorical style, an ongoing dialog between speaker and audience, is often heard in black churches. It’s a sign that the speaker and the listeners are in tune, and that the listeners are also speaking in their own way.
Obama has a welcoming gesture that invites people to gather to him. Come on down.
At one point, streaks of sunlight broke through the willow branches and fell on Obama’s shoulders(photographers call them “God beams”). In the background, fresh-faced volunteers were gathered shoulder-to-shoulder. It would have been easy to imagine them as a choir, and the black-suited Secret Service agents as deacons waiting to pass the collection plates.
When Obama listens to a voter’s question…
He really listens…
Then he pauses a beat, with his eyes squeezed shut, and then answers each part of the multi-part question, noting the question’s premise, and which parts of it he agrees or disagrees with, and then presenting his response, ending with a summary of his position. He does not dodge any questions, or reframe them into more friendly questions. He pursues every question with the dogged thoroughness and precision of a Constitutional law scholar. But his style is again more that of a preacher.
Old-time preachers sometimes open their sermons by saying, “I’m going to tell you what I’m going to say, then I’m going to say it, then I’m going to tell you what I just said.” This manner of sign posting a position is an effective rhetorical tactic.
Toward the end of the question-and-answer session, the anointing gesture swoops upward into a long-limbed, open-palmed “testify” gesture.
When Obama gestures to the crowd to sign their volunteer pledge forms and turn them in, one expects the diverse choir of college-age volunteers to break into “Shall We Gather at the River.” A black-suited Secret Service agent prepares to shepherd the senator along a makeshift “rope line” of hay bales.
Obama does the small things right. When he shakes hands, he looks you in the eye, listens to your comments, and responds meaningfully and specifically to each individual.