Obama and Cain: are you hearin' the difference?

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There's something about speaking before black audiences that always brings out President Barack Obama's grammatically incorrect side.

This is merely an observation and not meant as a criticism. The president must be given credit as an effective enough communicator to know what his audience will and won't tolerate.

When Mr. Obama makes a speech before any other important Democratic constituency, whether Hispanic groups, LGBT or union audiences, he's always careful to mind his "p's" and "q's." When he speaks to AIPAC or a Wall Street group, the teleprompter comes out.

In contrast, whenever he speaks to black groups, Mr. Obama, who graduated from Harvard Law with honors, unaccountably drops his "g's." He is so comfortable with black audiences that nobody notices that the alphabet has shrunk by a letter by the time he gets to the podium. The letter "g" packs its bags whenever the president feels like connectin' with black folks.

Mr. Obama's speeches to black audiences always contain an element of rebuke, too. As Mr. Obama's most loyal constituency, getting lectured to comes with the territory. My Southern relations would refer to this as an "ol'-fashioned, down-home ass whuppin'."

Last Saturday, Mr. Obama continued this fine tradition of tough lovin' with a fiery speech before the Congressional Black Caucus. Its annual Phoenix Awards dinner is a gala affair featuring a who's who of African-American leaders and Democratic operatives. No one shows up for one of these in overalls or dungarees.

Although not as vocal as other Democratic constituencies, even black groups like the congressional caucus had begun adding their voices to the chorus of those dissatisfied with Mr. Obama's leadership. In the week prior to the Phoenix Awards dinner, Mr. Obama abruptly shifted from the conciliatory language that has characterized most of his presidency to something vaguely resembling FDR spoiling for a fight.

"I expect all of you to march with me and press on," Mr. Obama told his audience as he broke out his preacher's cadence. "Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marchin' shoes. Shake it off. Stop complainin' [wild applause], stop grumblin', stop cryin'. We are going to press on. We've got work to do," he said as the audience erupted with joy. It all goes to show that you haven't lived until the president of the United States accuses you of laziness.

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain also had a big Saturday night. The former Godfather's Pizza CEO walked away with 37 percent of the vote to win the Florida GOP straw poll, once a reliable predictor of who would win the Republican nomination.

No one saw Mr. Cain's victory coming. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, ostensibly the GOP's frontrunner, finished 20 points behind despite pouring serious money into competition in the straw poll. The memory of his dismal debate performance days before probably ruined his chances for good. Rep. Michele Bachmann, the former flavor-of-the-month, finished last despite her obvious talent for retail politics.

Now, I can't envision any scenario in which voting for Herman Cain is a serious option. A favorite of the tea party's, similar to Ms. Bachmann, Mr. Cain simply doesn't know enough about government to be trusted with running it.

Having said that, it would be less than honest not to acknowledge what is perfectly obvious to anyone who listens to one of his speeches: Herman Cain sure talks pretty.

Mr. Cain stands before all-white crowds and in no time has them eating out of the palms of his hands. It isn't because he's particularly brilliant or has anything insightful to say. Mr. Cain is a gifted and exceptionally polished speaker who knows how to play the emotional chords of a conservative crowd like an expert fiddler.

Now, I have no proof, but I suspect that in the unlikely event that Herman Cain is ever invited to give the keynote address at the Congressional Black Caucus Phoenix Awards dinner, he'll do so without dropping a single "g."

Herman Cain is a black Southerner by birth and would have the perfect right to resort to echoes of a regional dialect to make a connection with his audience. Instead, no one adheres to the King's English with more tenacity than he does.

It's interesting that Mr. Cain is the most compelling speaker among the current crop of GOP candidates despite a more modest educational background than most of his rivals. He's probably better on his feet on non-technical issues than Mr. Obama, too.

Still, I would kill to see Mr. Obama and Mr. Cain in a series of nationally televised presidential debates leading up to the 2012 election. The ultimate winner would never be in doubt, but it would be the most exciting race ever. I hope the tea party will continue doing its part to make it happen.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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