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Barack Obama: a certain audacity

I have been asked to look at the recent announcement speech Barack Obama gave, and I should tell you, Gentle Readers, that as I was not knocked out by Sen. Obama’s 2004 DNC keynote speech as much as everybody else seemed to be, I was expecting to be a bit grumbly about this speech. Oh, I figured I would have some good things to say about it, but that I would again be left mostly wondering what people saw in this guy. Well, that’s not how it turned out. This was a good speech.

It wasn’t Your Humble Blogger’s perfect speech, because it lacked a central metaphor. Compare Mitt Romney’s announcement speech at the Henry Ford Museum this morning, where he talked about transformation and innovation while standing under a DC3 and next to a hybrid car. I’m not saying Governor Romney’s was a superior speech—it wasn’t—but it had a thing that YHB particularly likes, a metaphor that concretizes the theme. In Governor Romney’s case, the theme was the candidate’s business experience and how his experience, like that of the men who brought these magnificent breakthroughs to the public, can break through the DC mess and fundamentally change the system. Either that, or how he’s a ruthless anti-Semite. Something like that. Still, a central metaphor. His candidacy is like the DC3. It will change everything. And sixty years from now, we’ll all be bankrupt.

Now, Senator Obama had a historical allusion at the heart of his speech, and that allusion predictably garnered the bulk of the press attention that was not about how freakin’ cold it gets in the middle of the country (the only really good reason I’ve heard for leaving the campaign until Spring), but it wasn’t a metaphor so much. He was claiming to have taken inspiration from Abraham Lincoln, and not-so-subtly attempting to defuse the major criticism most people, including myself, have of him and his candidacy: his total lack of any qualification whatsoever for the job. We have had unqualified Presidents before, says the first-term Senator, and it hasn’t worked out badly at all. A nice touch, and it dovetails nicely with the other two major themes of the speech, but it ain’t a metaphor.

The other obvious theme is that his campaign is not about him, it’s about you. It’s about a movement. Now, this is not (to me) as impressive as Deval Patrick’s similarly-themed speech I wrote about last October, and it’s hard to articulate exactly why. I think that now-Governor Patrick did a lovely job of tying the movement part back into his candidacy, with the figure of him listening to various constituencies, and the appearance near the end of “let me worry about the attacks and the slanders. You do what you need to do.” Senator Obama has a lovely refrain of “let us be the generation that...”, but is to my mind less successful as to why our generation needs him to be President in order to achieve those things. The speech is inspiring, but it isn’t so much inspiring me to vote for him, as to work in the movement he describes, a movement that is not about the election at all.

Now, of course, the speech is entirely within the frame of an announcement of candidacy, so of course it is tied back in to his election. And he does talk in a few places about his plan, his system, his experience. I’m not saying it fails. But it doesn’t work as well as Deval Patrick’s speech at making his election to office a natural and necessary step in the grass-roots movement he describes. Now, Governor Patrick was in a general campaign, which is a totally different situation; the focus of the movement could well be getting rid of Kerry Murphy Healy and all she stood for and replacing her with Deval Patrick and everything he stood for. Barack Obama can’t claim that getting rid of Hillary Clinton and everything she stands for is an essential part of his movement—or, rather, he can’t do that and still be a mainstream candidate of the center. Still, Governor Patrick did a better job to my ears, and I think it’s because of the “Here’s what people tell me: No [x] tells me [y]” refrain that made him, personally, a conduit for the movement and its voices.

The third theme that runs through Senator Obama’s speech is generational change. I think this works incredibly well for him, in part because being born in 1961, he manages to span the generations. That is, he is younger, much younger, than the Baby Boomer presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. On the other hand, he is a Boomer. When he says “my generation”, I think both Boomers and post-Boomers see themselves included. And, as has been pointed out over at Jed’s place, he phrases the appeal in an inclusive, rather than an exclusive way. Still, he is talking about change, generational change. Why is that so important? Well, it marks a more complete shift from Our Only President than can be offered by his closer contemporaries in age, including almost all Senator Obama’s rivals for the nomination. Since generational shift is viewed as transformative, it forms a backdrop to a message of transformation. This is an echo of Our Previous President’s successful campaign in 1992, of course. Simply by being elected, by being youthful and fresh-faced, Bill Clinton transformed culture from being dominated by the World War Two generation to being dominated by the Boomers. Which is crap, of course, as transformations don’t happen like that, in one day. And yet, after twelve years of old men, we had a young man in the White House. It was Change.

And in echoing Bill Clinton, he also echoes Jack Kennedy (who Bill Clinton was trying to echo himself). President Kennedy also used the idea of generation shift with slogans such as Leadership for the 60s and Time for greatness along with the idea of The New Frontier. He, like Barack Obama, was forced to take his youth and inexperience and turn them from liabilities to assets. One term in the Senate and a fresh start on a second does not constitute a powerful resume. But we’d had older men in office for some time, and Jack Kennedy’s youth, vitality and charisma managed to beat out Richard Nixon’s experience (Richard Nixon, although only four years older than John Kennedy, never came across as youthful, and anyway was naturally associated with the Old Administration in which he had served as Vice-President). Now, Barack Obama can remind us that while we often choose older, more experienced men as President, we have made exceptions in the past, and they have turned out well.

I’ll note, by the way, that Barack Obama’s subtle and graceful comparison of his own inexperienced self explicitly with Abraham Lincoln and implicitly with John Kennedy stands a lovely contrast with Dan Quayle’s crude and clumsy attempt to compare himself with John Kennedy. True, it was Lloyd Bentsen that put the kibosh on that, but the lesson to take away is that it is good to evoke the comparison, but bad to make the comparison. Or, rather, that by comparing your skinny self to Abraham Lincoln’s gangly frame, you can allude to the comparison in experience or the lack thereof, which will work better than a direct comparison. A light touch, is what I’m saying.

I’ve rambled enough about this, but I do have two more observations. First, when you watch the thing (if you do), notice how serious his face and gestures are. He’s not giving the signal that he’s enjoying himself. When making the actual announcement, many candidates would do so with a smile, a note of triumph, and an upward gesture, perhaps leading to a raised arm wave to the cheering crowd. Senator Obama sets his jaw, gestures sharply down, and ducks his head to the crowd. Throughout, his body language, facial expressions and gestures are towards the somber end of the scale. That’s not intended as a criticism, but it was very noticeable as a matter of style. One result of that (a calculated result, I assume) is that his smile, when it does appear, is absolutely devastating. There is something terribly sexy (I think this is a widespread feeling and not my own thang) about a sudden smile on a normally impassive face. I don’t actually know if Senator Obama is normally as grave as he appeared to me in this speech, but if he is, it’s definitely a different style as most of the other candidates—and when he does flash his smile, hearts will melt.

The other thing is that he does not end his speech, as I thought was de rigueur for major speeches, by saying “Gd bless you” or even “Gd bless America”. He opened with “Praise and honor to Gd for bringing us together here today” (or possibly “Give praise...”; it wasn’t in the transcript), which is an odd (to my ears) and formal beginning for a political speech. Senator Obama is known for being comfortable talking about religion, and has in fact stated that politicians should be comfortable talking about religion, and is, as far as I can tell, actually comfortable talking about religion, which makes the omission of the closing plea for the blessing of the Divine particularly notable. I know that the Republicans have been notable for nominating candidates such as George Herbert Walker Bush and Bob Dole who are uncomfortable talking about their faith, unlike our Party’s more successful recent candidates, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, whose religious allusions were plentiful and unforced. Still, I am often uncomfortable with religious imagery in political rhetoric, and I am particularly uncomfortable with the exceptionalist strand that seems to me to be echoed when a speech ends on a triumphant note (as such speeches often do), with “Gd Bless America” appended, not as a humble plea but as a statement or even a prediction: We’re going to win! Gd Bless America! I’m happy to see somebody get away with leaving out those three words at the end of a major speech; I’d be even happier to see the back of it as a custom.

I have another sort of idea about a more general change in rhetorical frames over the last twenty years, but that will have to wait for another note.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.