The president’s teleprompter

Obama, an audacious orator with a steady gaze, paradoxically takes no risks on the podium.

When President Barack Obama speaks to an audience, his gaze is steady. It never wavers. It canâÄôt, because for all speeches great and small, Obama looks to a teleprompter for his lines. Speaking off the scrolling script isnâÄôt at all unusual by presidential standards. Since Eisenhower, all United States presidents have used teleprompters, but none with the frequency of President Obama. I saw Obama speak for the first time at Widener College in Chester, Pa., the week before the presidential election. When Obama finally took the stage to speak, I heard a speech with familiar contours. Parts of it were so familiar to me from the nighttime news that I could have recited it along with him. When I paid attention to him on the news, however, Obama always seemed to look attentively back at me. So I was intrigued by Obama as a live orator, whose gaze was fixed not on his present audience, but rather on two points on the horizon, one center stage left, the other center stage right. And if you happened to be in the tight arc of vision between these two points, well, hereâÄôs lookinâÄô at you, too, kid. This is something that an audience viewing the pixels of his aspect from a television monitor never notices. But to the audience before him in the same space and moment in time, it looks oddly contrived. Reporters have taken note, too. The New York Times ran an article last week about ObamaâÄôs reliance on reading from a screen, reporting that he âÄúuses 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.âÄù During a speech on endangered species, Obama gazed into the teleprompter to recall a visit to national parks as a child. âÄúThat was an experience I will never forget,âÄù the prompter reminded him. I donâÄôt challenge whether national park visits figured large in ObamaâÄôs childhood, nor do I feel that prescripting each presidential delivery necessarily makes it somehow less genuine than if it were performed extempore. IâÄôm not jealous of the two mirrored screens that stole perhaps seconds of sustained eye contact between me and a future president of the United States after I braved rain, sleet and dark of night for hours in Nowheresville, Pa. I accept that teleprompters allow the orator to ignore the live audience while maintaining the appearance of sincere attention to a mass audience that presumably matters more. The reaction of that mass audience is harder to gauge. It comes scattered through Gallup polls, petitions and letters to the editor, all of which are better barometers of the national zeitgeist than appraisals of the presidentâÄôs rhetoric in a particular speech. So far, America loves its prompted president, if 60 percent approval ratings from NBC polls are anything to go by. I wonder how the sleight of hand facilitated by the teleprompter changes the psychology of the orator. The value of a live audience lies in its reactions. Television comedy used to be filmed before live audiences in order to capture the chuckles and snorts that happened off-screen. But the crowd introduced an unpredictability to the studio that was replaced with the always on-cue laugh track. For Obama, using teleprompters is a way of staying close to his intended message. I imagine that he wants to avoid bloopers as he tries to stick to the screenplay of a perfect presidency, starring Barack Obama. But perhaps the film has been rolling on the bloopers all along, and the farce is really that no one can see what his gaze is fixed upon. This column, accessed via UWire, was originally published in the Daily Princetonian at Princeton. Please send comments to [email protected].