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Obama's Gifted Oratory--and What It Can't Accomplish

Time often blunts my initial impressions of political speeches: The extraordinary becomes more ordinary, while the pedestrian and pedantic start to seem profound. But, after a few hours of sleep, my impressions of last night are, if anything, more pronounced than before. Clinton was classless, not to mention destructive. (I guess I, too, am becoming apoplectic.) McCain was languid and whiny. Obama was energetic and, at times, inspiring.

For Obama, of course, this is nothing new. More than any politician in recent memory, he has relied upon speeches to propel his candidacy. It was his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention that vaulted him into the national spotlight; it was his speech at last year's Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner that revived his flagging candidacy; and it was his disquisition on race a few months ago that saved his campaign from the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The prospect of putting such a talented orator in the White House is one of the many (though hardly the most significant) reasons Obama's candidacy makes me enthusiastic. But I also worry whether, now that the campaign is over, these skills will serve Obama as well as they have so far.

One of the many underappreciated benefits of the drawn-out Democratic primary is that it gave Obama the extended exposure in what is undeniably his best setting. After every set of primaries and caucuses, Obama had the opportunity to give yet another address, before yet another crowd of enthusiastic hordes, with yet another national audience watching on television. And if it was mostly political junkies who paid attention--i.e., people like me and (if you're reading this) you--it was still a larger audience than will watch any speeches Obama gives between now and August, when Obama delivers his acceptance speech at the convention in Denver. 

That means the stunning contrast we saw last night--between a polished, energized Obama versus a stilted, listless McCain--is one we won't likely see again for a long time, at least not with such focused attention. The campaign shifts now, not just in substance, but in style, as well. Obama may prove more adept than McCain in some of these settings, too. But his advantage is unlikely to be so dramatic.

During the primaries, Clinton and her supporters frequently suggested Obama's great speeches masked a lack of substance--a charge McCain and his supporters have since taken up as their own. The coming months will prove, once and for all, whether the charge had any merit.  

--Jonathan Cohn