How Obama's Stump Speech Has Evolved

Sen. Barack Obama i

Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a rally at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh on Monday. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Barack Obama

Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a rally at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh on Monday.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Barack Obama rally i

Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters during a rally at Widener University in Chester, Pa., on Tuesday. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Barack Obama rally

Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters during a rally at Widener University in Chester, Pa., on Tuesday.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

By now, both major-party presidential candidates have their basic stump speeches down pat — repeated several times a day and seven days a week, with themes and hooks and jabs honed to perfection. It's the distillation of their message, and in the closing days of the campaign, NPR will examine both stump speeches. On Monday, we looked at John McCain's stump speech. Today, NPR reports on Barack Obama's speech.

Obama is known for his soaring oratory and his ability to transport a crowd with his words. But with the election so close, Obama is now leaving nothing to chance and uses a teleprompter at every event.

All the material he needs to make his argument about change is ripped right from the bad-news headlines of any newspaper: the economy, plummeting retirement savings accounts and general financial instability.

Bob Shrum, a speechwriter for dozens of Democratic candidates, says what impresses him about Obama is how consistent his speeches have been since he began his run for the White House 20 months ago.

"I think Obama's stump speech is remarkable for its continuity, its capacity to adapt and to take the news of the day in — put it inside the structure of the speech and continue to make the same points over and over again," Shrum says. "Not always in as abstract a way as he did in the primary, [but] he's always talking about hope and he's always talking about unity."

In every speech, Obama also pushes back against McCain — especially when he takes a swipe at McCain's claim that Obama will raise taxes on "Joe the Plumber."

"But let's be clear who Sen. McCain's fighting for. He's not fighting for Joe the Plumber; he's fighting for Joe the Hedge Fund Manager," Obama says.

Another speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who has written for President Bush and former presidential hopeful Bob Dole, says Obama's speech has evolved into a less lofty, more populist call.

"The speech is very much an FDR Democratic class-warfare speech," Gerson says. "If you are a CEO, a hedge fund manager or rich person, you're not the hero of this speech. He's very much running on economic populist themes in tough economic times."

That's a good thing, Shrum says, since for years Obama has been urging Democrats to get in touch with their inner populist.

"If John McCain is going to talk about Joe the Plumber, it's not a bad idea to respond that he wants to give a huge tax cut to Jim the Hedge Fund Manager," Shrum says. "Democrats have for a long time been too afraid fundamentally of what we believe, and I think we ought to go out there say what we believe, stand for it and fight for it. Republicans did very well for a whole generation by doing that."

Easy On The Middle Class

Obama's speech is more down to earth than it was during the primaries. The fierce sense of urgency is gone. Instead, there is a laundry list of benefits for the middle class: a tax cut for 95 percent of workers, a three-month moratorium on home foreclosures, and zero capital-gains taxes for small businesses.

There is no talk about how his plans might have to adjust to the nation's wrenching financial crisis, but Obama does warn that change will not come easily.

"Bush has dug a deep hole. It's going to take some time to dig us out. We're all going to need to tighten our belts a little bit. We're all going to need to sacrifice," the senator says.

Then he tells voters exactly how they will have to sacrifice, from being better parents to conserving electricity. This cautious candidate clearly does not want to risk stressing his supporters this close to the election.

And Obama's central argument has never changed: A vote for John McCain is tantamount to four more years of President Bush.

For Shrum, this is one of the most effective aspects of Obama's speech.

"What's interesting is that the superstructure [of his stump speech] has never changed. The superstructure is change. The superstructure is hope. The superstructure is we're one country. We can overcome our divisions — which I think, by the way, is how he talks about race without explicitly talking about it," Shrum says.

Race As A Subtle Element

At a recent campaign stop in Richmond, Va., Obama obliquely brought up the issue of race by telling people in the audience that, at some point, every one of them had someone who stood up for them.

"They might not have been able to vote, but they marched and fought so you could vote," he said.

And he indirectly acknowledged his own historic White House bid: "Maybe you could run for the United States Senate. Maybe you could run for the presidency of the United States of America. That's what this election is about."

In one week, he said, people can put an end to the politics that would divide a nation to win an election.

"If you work with me, if you make phone calls with me, if you organize with me, I promise you — together we will change the country and change the world. God bless you," Obama said.

And that's right where he started 20 months ago, as a consistent and disciplined candidate with a consistent and disciplined message.

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