The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Obama still isn’t big on Oval Office speeches

The Oval Office has long been synonymous with the presidential prime-time speech, from Richard Nixon's resignation (the 37th time he spoke from the Oval Office) to Ronald Reagan's address on the Challenger disaster to Bill Clinton speaking on military involvement in Somalia.

But President Obama avoids using his office for major speeches -- he has only spoken from the Oval Office twice. The president, who often gesticulates, apparently doesn't really like speaking from behind his desk.  So where does he go instead, and why?

"You don't have a lot of options" for a speech like the one Obama will make Wednesday, said Reid Cherlin, a former assistant press secretary in the Obama administration. "When he does prime-time addresses, he does them from the East Room or the State Dining Room."

It's fitting, then, that White House architect James Hoban designed the East Room to be the "public audience chamber." It is the biggest room in the White House, has little furniture and is where presidents are actually inaugurated.

It's also a preferred Obama speech spot. It's where he addressed the nation after the killing of Osama bin Laden and last made a major televised speech about Syria, exactly one year ago Wednesday.

The East Room's got pomp. Obama must stride down a long, red carpet before getting to the podium. A large chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and ornate gold and red chairs line the walls. The cavernous room has a distinct echo. According to the White House museum, a Steinway grand piano sits in the room and a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington hangs on the wall.

One of the benefits of speaking from the East Room, Cherlin said, is that Obama can huddle with advisers in the nearby Blue Room -- where staffers will wait out the speech -- and tweak his remarks privately until the last minute.

Having a big speech in the White House also makes it easier to do things on short notice. Getting Obama to an outside location requires weeks of advance planning and security prep.

Obama last month announced that he had authorized air strikes in Iraq against the Islamic State from the State Dining Room, where he stood at a podium in front of a mantel and made a late night statement. In May, he made an announcement about Afghanistan in the Rose Garden.

Cherlin is not a fan of Obama's direct-to-camera speeches, arguing that the approach makes the president appear flat and sapped of energy. Cherlin also does not like when Obama gives these speeches from massive, ornate rooms in the White House -- especially when he needs to undertake a somewhat awkward televised walk to the podium.

"I know that these rooms are supposed to convey presidential authority, and they do -- but they also, I think, convey isolation in a way that is probably not that helpful for a message like this," Cherlin said.

Obama was propelled to the presidency by the power of his stump speeches to large audiences, but it doesn't feel right to have a president make major military announcements in front of a cheering or jeering crowd. He has, however, turned to smaller audiences for policy speeches.

Obama announced plans to send more troops to Afghanistan at West Point in December 2009, and returned there to lay out a new approach to foreign policy in May. Obama defended American action in Libya at the National Defense University in March 2011. The location of these speeches also helped set the tone -- the president was addressing military policy at military institutions. The backdrop conveyed a commander-in-chief letting briefing U.S. forces. The White House speeches show a president addressing the nation from the center of American power.

And that's where President Obama will be Wednesday night.