(Major update after the jump)
Yesterday (China time) I mentioned that, based on comparisons of a commencement address he delivered two years ago and one he gave this weekend, Barack Obama "has gotten better at the necessary poetry of ceremonial speaking."
Several people have written back to say: Well, maybe he just has better speechwriters! And: Since you (me) used to work as a speechwriter (for Jimmy Carter), shouldn't you be particularly sensitive to this point?
Answer, to the second question: No. And it's precisely because I have worked is this field that my answer to the first question is: I don't care who originally came up with these phrases or drafted the speech.
If a public figure's basic quality of mind or ability to express himself is in question, as frankly is the case with President George W. Bush, then it might be worth investigating whether the words he is uttering actually reflect his underlying outlook and comprehension.
No sane person wonders this about Obama. By himself, long before he had a staff for such help, he wrote one very good book, Dreams from My Father. By all accounts he has written other crucial speeches, including the one about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, all on his own.
So once we have this indication of his basic abilities and outlook, it really shouldn't matter whether he applies them in every speech he makes. Indeed it would be a misuse of his time and talents to do so. No important political leader can personally perform a lot of the tasks that are carried out in his or her name. The test is whether he can motivate, lead, and manage teams of people to perform in the way, and at the level, he would do himself -- if he had a million hours in each day rather than 24. (This is the leadership version of "give someone a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach someone to fish... and soon the oceans will be empty." Oops, that's a different point.)
If Obama personally wrote both the 2006 and the 2008 commencement speeches, great. To me it suggests that he's getting better. If he wrote the old one and an assistant wrote the new one, great too. It shows that he is able to have even better work produced in his name. In a way, the second would be more reassuring, as a guide to possible performance in office.
UPDATE: Thanks to Thomas Bowen, pretty solid evidence on the "who wrote this speech?" front -- and introduction of a new question. It turns out that Obama made virtually the same pitch about service and life choices when he spoke at the 2005 Knox College commencement in Galesburg, Illinois:
Now, no one can force you to meet these challenges. If you want, it will be pretty easy for you to leave here today and not give another thought to towns like Galesburg and the challenges they face. There is no community service requirement in the real world; no one is forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after the big house, and the nice suits, and all the other things that our money culture says that you should want, that you should aspire to, that you can buy.
But I hope you don't walk away from the challenge. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. You need to take up the challenges that we face as a nation and make them your own. Not because you have a debt to those who helped you get here, although you do have that debt. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate than you, although I do think you do have that obligation. It's primarily because you have an obligation to yourself. Because individual salvation has always depended on collective salvation. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.
So, it's very likely that he wrote this himself, both times. And maybe his phrasing is not "getting better" at all!
The new question is, do we care that he is repeating himself? Answer: No, and I'd say the same if we were talking about Hillary Clinton, John McCain, or G.W. Bush. Obama was giving the speech at short notice; commencement speeches, as previously noted, involve a standard set of moods and themes; and there's no embarrassment in using the same formulation with one audience that you used with someone else another time. It's fine for politicians to keep recycling phrases and anecdotes in their stump speeches, since they're usually addressing different people each time. Since the potential audience for his Wesleyan speech was orders of magnitude greater than for the one at Knox, the phrasing would be fresh to most of them (including me). Obama had better not use this exact formulation in another major nationally televised address, and I bet he won't. But I also bet that his stump-speech audiences will be exposed to it, which is fine.