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Barack Obama: This was the moment

I had heard wonderful things about Barack Obama’s victory speech in Iowa, and when I watched it, I was moved. It’s a good speech, and a moving speech. But an odd speech. First, the things that aren’t odd. Nobody likes a candidate who puffs himself up and takes credit for a victory. Furthermore, Sen. Obama has positioned himself—no, he has told a story about his candidacy that is about a groundswell of individual and organizational support that has coalesced around him due to his inspirational charisma and history. That is, in this story, the campaign is not about him, but neither does it exist apart from him. He is the spark, the catalyst, the inspiration and the incentive combined. A victory for Sen. Obama is not only the accomplishment of the movement (which is certainly true) but the reward for the movement. And that’s how he begins. Watch Your Humble Blogger’s emphasis added to the text, here.

You know, they said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided; too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night - at this defining moment in history - you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days. You have done what America can do in this New Year, 2008. In lines that stretched around schools and churches; in small towns and big cities; you came together as Democrats, Republicans and Independents to stand up and say that we are one nation; we are one people; and our time for change has come.

Not too obvious? Well, a little. But it works. In all, out of 1,327 words, 58 are either you or we (I’m not counting the two directed solely at his wife. To his credit, there are only four instances of they, three of which are in the above excerpt. It’s a pretty inclusive we.

I also like his use of repetition: the time has come three times after three introductory uses of this day would never come, too disillusioned to ever come, and our time for change has come. Four uses of I’ll be a President who (I’ll come back to those). Eight uses of moment in a broader theme that comes back to his Our Moment is Now stump speech. Eleven hopes, of course. Three repetitions of I know, which I am a little skeptical about, but he’s talking about shared experience, or trying to. Repetition is always tricky, but if you can use it properly, it’s just about the most powerful trick there is.

Also, pay attention (if you listen to it) to his tone and pitch, it’s remarkable. He has wonderful control. I know I have not been effusive in my praise for the Senator’s speeches in the past, but he really does have a tremendous talent.

Now, the bad part. What exactly is the movement for? In the tiny portion of his address where he flirts with policy and governance he hits four issues that don’t seem to have any connection or any greater purpose. I mean, yes health care and fair taxes and Iraq and especially ending “the tyranny of oil”, but I get no sense that those things are what you have done. This isn’t a movement to get health care, or to bring our boys home and it’s certainly not a movement for a middle-class tax cut. I don’t just say that because Senator Obama’s policies on those things are just a trifle less impressive than John Edward’s policies. I say that because for all that he throws in a health care line into the beautiful (and probably victorious) vision of “years from now”—you know what, let’s just print that bit.

…years from now, when we've made the changes we believe in; when more families can afford to see a doctor; when our children-when Malia and Sasha and your children-inherit a planet that's a little cleaner and safer; when the world sees America differently, and America sees itself as a nation less divided and more united; you'll be able to look back with pride and say that this was the moment when it all began.

This was the moment when the improbable beat what Washington always said was inevitable.

This was the moment when we tore down barriers that have divided us for too long - when we rallied people of all parties and ages to a common cause; when we finally gave Americans who'd never participated in politics a reason to stand up and to do so.

This was the moment when we finally beat back the politics of fear, and doubt, and cynicism; the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up. This was the moment.

Years from now, you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment - this was the place—where America remembered what it means to hope.

You see? When we look back at the accomplishments of a Barack Obama administration, the signal accomplishment is getting Barack Obama elected.

That’s the bigger movement that has coalesced around the candidate. And that’s not so bad. Because that movement, the movement that will get Barack Obama elected to the presidency of the United States, is a transformative movement. It’s an inspirational movement. And if, with his leadership, we transform ourselves into a people that will elect Barack Obama to the presidency…

Well, maybe that’s enough.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Thank you for analyzing the rhetoric of Senator Obama's speech.

Two questions come to my mind about it:

1) Is Senator Obama attempting to be the democratic version of Ronald Reagan in his use of rhetoric? If that is his mode, and he succeeds in wining the Presidency on that basis, can he get the American public out of the wishful thinking trap they have festered in since the Great Communicator?

2) Would it have been so hard for him to say, "when every family in America can afford to see a doctor" or, even better, "when every American can afford to see a doctor"?

Thanks for this. I just went and watched the video (though the one I watched was a much lower-quality-video newscast version that included a full minute of applause and interruptions before the speech proper began--thanks for the link to the better version), and immediately came by here to see whether you'd written about it, and lo! you had!

I'm not sure I agree with your key point on the negative side, though. You wrote: "When we look back at the accomplishments of a Barack Obama administration, the signal accomplishment is getting Barack Obama elected."

Okay, yes, cleverly put. But I think there's more going on here. I think the three pillars underlying Obama's rhetoric and campaign have always been unity, change, and hope.

(He's also always had a couple of mainstay issues, notably his not having voted for the war in Iraq. But I think these days that tends to get somewhat subsumed in the larger "change" message.)

So, yes, I agree that he tossed out a sort of a grab bag of somewhat ill-assorted topics, and that there is no one issue that he's running on, or that his victory in Iowa is a victory for. But I don't think his campaign is primarily about specific issues. I think it's primarily about inspiration.

So I think that one of the unspoken messages in this speech was that the unexpectedly high turnout in Iowa was a victory for hope, change, and unity; and that he's the one who's providing the inspiration that led to the high turnout. (The version of the video I saw provided me with this subtext in the form of scrolling statements from other candidates and from Howard Dean talking about how great the turnout was.)

To me, Obama's greatest strengths continue to be his charisma and his oratory. I watch his speeches, and I get inspired; for just a few moments, I believe that yes, we can. And on the one hand, charisma and oratory are no way to handle the day-to-day business of running a country; but on the other hand, I think a lot of Americans are pretty desperate for hope and inspiration these days. Is that just another form of the wishful-thinking trap you're talking about, Chris? 'Cause I think there is an upside to it: sometimes hope and inspiration can become, as V more or less indicated, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Making people feel hopeful about the future can sometimes inspire them to take actions that will help bring about the outcomes they were hoping for.

...I should add, though, that the more sober part of my brain insists on pointing out that 38% of the Democratic voters in one state doesn't really constitute a mandate from the united American people. But of course part of the goal of this victory speech was to make a self-fulfilling prophecy out of the idea that The People Have Spoken.

it's really what the people who feel transformed do with that opportunity. plenty of time after the decisive primary result arrives to feel out the groundswell for productivity. no, call it will-to-accomplish. the situation calls for a combination of capacity and humility that i think vector poorly through our national politicians because their enormous power to do the same is pressure to avoid the different-that-is-needed.

but it's about taking the measure of the people, using politicians as thermometer. i seriously doubt our coming century will allow "us" to keep waiting for elite-progressivism to pay off. putting it mildly.

Chris, I don't think that Sen. Obama is the Dem RWR; he's not selling morning in America. He's selling a vision of what we can become not what we are (or were). I think.

Jed, what frustrates me is that the Senator's unity, transformation and hope don't seem to be in aid of anything. He seems to be saying that if we are unified, transformed and hopeful, then... things will be better. But unity, transformation and hope doesn't pass legislation. Unity, transformation and hope doesn't rebuild New Orleans. Unity, transformation and hope doesn't slash co2. It doesn't hurt, and you could argue that they make those things easier. But I would be happier if we were united in some actual cause, something more than a campaign. The people who support John Edwards, for example, are more or less unified in support of drastically reducing the reach and grasp of corporate capitalism. Hillary Clinton's supporters are more or less unified in support of demolishing the Republican-lobbyist-media cadre (mostly by splitting them up). Barack Obama's supporters are more or less unified in support of ... unification.

hapa, I think what's inspiring about Sen. Obama's success is exactly this idea that we've taken the temperature of the people using him as a thermometer, and discovered that we're not dead yet.


So, i guess i see Obama as promising that he will be effective in delivering whatever change is needed. That is, he's an inspiring speaker, and good at bringing a bunch of people to the table to support a program, and he will use those things to make happen whatever policies he chooses to support.

Now, that's not good enough if he supports harmful policies, of course. But i don't get the impression that he does --- most of the legislation he's spearheaded seems fairly reasonable to me. I think his particular policy positions stated thus-far are maybe not quite as good as Edwards's, but they're not bad, and they certainly don't seem fundamentally wrongheaded in comparison to Edwards's.

I think that the ability to decide what you want to do, then go out and find all the people who need to be brought to the table, then bring them to the table, could be a really powerful force in turning around some of the devastating and unnecessary incompetence of our government at this time. And i think Obama is promising to be good at that, and i think he probably actually is. (For this, i can pull at some stories from things he did in Illinois, but i was also impressed by the manner of the Iowa caucus win. He said the Democrats were going to get vastly elevated turnout which was going to cause him to win. This is basically an eye-roll-inducing claim, but then turnout actually hit the claimed number. Sure, it's easier to run a GotV operation than a country, but it's definitely more impressive to run a GotV operation well than to fail to do so.)

And i don't mistrust him --- he's a moderate Democrat, and he'll have mostly reasonable policy positions most of the time, such that, if he is elected and is effective in support of the positions he is likely to hold, the state of this country will mostly improve in the ways i find important. So that's basically my thinking there.

btw does it seem that suddenly edwards has the ability to get obama elected?

hee, edwards is my cheney

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