Obama switches off his teleprompter

President Obama is weaning himself off his teleprompter.

At recent campaign events in Pennsylvania, Virginia and again Monday in Ohio, Obama spoke to crowds in high school gymnasiums and at crowded outdoor events without his teleprompter, instead using written notes.

The difference is dramatic. Instead of turning in his characteristic manner from right to left and back again, reading from the two sloping, clear-plastic planes of his teleprompter, Obama has glanced down at pages in a binder on his podium.

Team Obama thinks the switch, or partial switch — the president is not giving up the teleprompter entirely — will help him better connect with voters.

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Critics have mocked Obama’s routine use of the teleprompter, including in speeches to schoolchildren. And the new use of written notes appears intended to trade away the smooth, distant demeanor of teleprompter rhetoric for a little more immediacy and vigor. A senior administration official acknowledged the shift in the president’s style, saying Obama is speaking “more extemporaneously.”

But the senior official said the lack of teleprompters has “less to do with image and more to do with upping the tempo” at campaign events, while creating more unscripted moments.

Not using a teleprompter lets Obama be more spontaneous on the stump. Since making the shift, the president at times has ad-libbed remarks while playing off his supporters’ reactions, something that had been difficult with a teleprompter.

“It’s become a crutch,” Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University who specializes in political communications, said in describing Obama’s use of the teleprompter. 

“It seemed as though he couldn’t go anywhere without them, and it made him seem unconfident and robotic in dealing with real people out there,” Berkovitz said.

Until recently, Obama was rarely seen without the two transparent panels at his side. And it’s not just Republicans who have gibed him over the high-tech help.

Obama was once mocked by “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart after he spoke inside a sixth-grade classroom with the twin teleprompters at his sides.

Even Vice President Biden piled on in teasing him. 

“What am I going to tell the president when I tell him his teleprompter is broken? What will he do then?” Biden said in a 2009 speech, after a gust of wind knocked down his own teleprompter during a commencement address.

More recently, Obama’s teleprompter found its way into a new song by Hank Williams Jr., who sings, “Barack, pack your bags, head to Chicago … take your teleprompters with you.”

Some Republicans think Obama is helping himself by ditching the teleprompter.

Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to former President George W. Bush, said it is “the right thing to do,” especially since Obama is “a much better public speaker” than his presumptive GOP opponent, Mitt Romney. While Bush and other presidents including Bill Clinton relied on the device for more formal remarks like the State of the Union address, they seldom used it for speeches made, for example, during factory tours.

“I personally never understood why [the Obama White House] felt the need to use it as much as they do,” Fratto said. “It made him look out of touch. It’s almost too perfect and it lacks a sense of authenticity.”

Obama, Fratto added, does a nice job at delivering a speech but is a much better communicator when he’s not using a teleprompter.

White House officials and campaign aides seem to have learned this lesson over recent months. When Obama first launched his reelection bid, his speeches could come off a bit buttoned-up and stiff. And while crowds wanted to let loose chanting “Four more years!” Obama didn’t seem to play along. But in recent days, as the campaign has heated up, the president, his sleeves rolled up and his voice occasionally growing hoarse, has become increasingly spontaneous.

During a speech in Virginia earlier this week, when the president told a crowd that he wouldn’t be “too long-winded,” and a member of the crowd shouted, “Take your time!” he went off script in a colorful moment that supporters appeared to eat up. 

“See, I know these are some churchgoing folks when they say take your time,” Obama said to applause. “I know we’ve got some outstanding preachers here, as well, so I’m not going to try to compete with them.”

Those lighter moments are better suited for an informal speech without teleprompters, observers say.

“When you’re trying to deliver a precise message, the teleprompter is a great tool to have, but when you’re looking to generate passion and connect more directly, it’s somewhat limiting,” said Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary in the Clinton White House.

The appearances on the road suggest Obama wants to take that weapon away from the GOP. But he also hasn’t completely abandoned the high-tech accessories.

At the White House last week, when Obama was pushing his tax-extension proposal, he appeared to be without his teleprompter. But while he didn’t have the two glass panels flanking him, he referred time and again to two monitors on the left and the right of the room, the sentences in his speech inching up slowly as he spoke.

Obama aides say he will continue to speak off the cuff and hold events including town halls — like the one he attended in Cincinnati on Monday — at which he won’t refer to a speech at all. But aides and observers say the teleprompter will re-emerge for the more prominent remarks.

“When he speaks at the convention, those remarks will be much more precise,” Lockhart said.