Sketch: Obama in the flesh

Obama in the flesh: No way to cut to another scene.
Obama in the flesh: No way to cut to another scene.

Barack Obama manages to be simultaneously more and less impressive in person.

By Ian Dunt

The first thing you notice is how long-winded he is. About five minutes into Barack Obama's first answer, I started wondering why he was still talking. You can see why the religious right in the US think he's a Communist. The man could out-talk Chavez or Fidel.

The trouble with real life, I've always found, is that you can't cut to another scene. This was the first time I'd ever seen the American president in the flesh. I was quite upset by the fact that we couldn't cut away. Actually, due to the restrictive rules in place at the press conference, we couldn't even check our phones, which had to be switched off. We were also barred from standing up, apart from when asking a question. On the roofs of Lancaster House, police snipers scanned the horizon. I'm generally much more prone to following rules when snipers are involved.

Two media organisations from each country were given a question. The rest of us were just meat in the room, or rather, cotton in the breeze, given that the Foreign Office had opted for an outside press conference. That gave both leaders an opportunity to be as longwinded as they like. Obama jumped on it. You can see why the Americans are starting to tire of him. It's even worse on these state visits, where the message is so resolutely uncontroversial and boring. These things are for the broadcasters, not for the press. Who would have thought, for instance, that both David Cameron and Obama want to see peace in the Middle East? Gripping stuff, you can imagine.

The Washington press corps don't help. They're noticeably more respectful, because of that curious American tradition of combining the political party leader job with head of state. British hacks raised bemused eyebrows as our US counterparts stood up to ask questions, with an altogether less suspicious tone.

Despite his fondness for his own voice (it is a great voice - just the right amount of drawl to be reassuringly American but without getting all Bill Clinton-y) Obama is still impressive. His rhetorical skills were absent today, at least at the press conference, but his facial expressions reward intense viewing.

He is the absolute master of the visionary stare. It's like that Che Guevara poster but without the anger. It is, of course, quite demented and entirely meaningless. But that stare into the middle distance communicates gravitas and preparedness and history. It's really rather good.

His combination of a grimace and a smile during tough questions is also effective. It shows that he's taking it seriously, but that he's ultimately unaffected. Cameron instead says 'thank you' and proceeds to evade the question. It's a tedious game for both questioner and questionee and one which no-one emerges wiser from. Obama has just as little content, but it feels far more genuine.

None of it saves you from the tedium of one-and-a-half hours of content-less political statements, of course. As it was with his skin colour so it is now with his manners: Obama's image is more persuasive than his message.


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