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A speech for one week out

Your Humble Blogger is trying very hard not to become too focused on the election next week. It is the country’s powerfulest scene and show. But it’s only an election.
And besides, it’s not like I’m obsessing in some useful way, heading up to New Hampshire to give people a ride to their polling places, or even making telephone calls. No, I’m just refreshing 538 and TPM and running over possible scenarios in my head. And trying to figure out whether to lay in a stock of munchies for next week or a stock of liquor.
So I decided to take a look at today’s speech by Sen. Obama, mostly to try to take myself out of the urgent moment (and it is urgent) and try to take a longer view. I am hoping to be taking a look at Barack Obama’s speeches for years, and enjoying it, too, but if I’m not, well, let’s take a quick look at this one.
The thing that strikes YHB right off the bat is the sequence where Sen. Obama positions himself—not as a Third Way candidate, but as a third alternative to false choices. “We don’t have to choose between allowing our financial system to collapse and spending billions of taxpayer dollars to bail out Wall Street banks.” We also don’t have to choose between tax cuts and no tax cuts, between “putting up a wall around America or allowing every job to disappear overseas”, “between a government-run health care system and the unaffordable one we have now”, “between more money [for education] and more reform“, and “between retreating from the world and fighting a war without end in Iraq.”
As I say, rhetorically this sounds a bit like Third Way stuff, but when you look at it, it’s very different. Instead of talking about a choice between the Old Way and the Wrong Way, Sen. Obama is saying that many of the choices presented to us are phony to begin with. And it’s implied, I think, that there are people deliberately giving us those phony choices in order to deceive us, but it isn’t phrased to draw attention to that oppositional aspect. He could have said They say you have to choose between… or My opponents say the choice is between… but he chose to emphasize something else. He chose to emphasize we rather then they, and his alternative rather than the false choice.

That’s a bedrock, of course, of his rhetorical style. If I’ve counted right, he used the word we 91 times in the speech (he said I only 56 times). In the culminating minutes of the speech, he subsumes his own election almost entirely to the crowd’s:

Don’t believe for a second this election is over. Don’t think for a minute that power concedes. We have to work like our future depends on it in this last week, because it does.

In one week, we can choose an economy that rewards work and creates new jobs and fuels prosperity from the bottom-up.

In one week, we can choose to invest in health care for our families, and education for our kids, and renewable energy for our future.

In one week, we can choose hope over fear, unity over division, the promise of change over the power of the status quo.

In one week, we can come together as one nation, and one people, and once more choose our better history.

That’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if in this last week, you will knock on some doors for me, and make some calls for me, and talk to your neighbors, and convince your friends; if you will stand with me, and fight with me, and give me your vote, then I promise you this—we will not just win Ohio, we will not just win this election, but together, we will change this country and we will change the world. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless America.


Notice that he doesn’t entirely disappear. He is there, but as a recipient of the crowd’s largesse, rather than them as his. Sen. Obama is me, not I.

Now, none of this is anything new to him, nor is it true only of him. In Sen. McCain’s speech today, he used we 39 times to 18, a slightly higher we rate (since his speech was much shorter and used fewer words). But I think the use is central to Sen. Obama’s campaign, and possibly to his presidency.

Distraction: The following are frequently-used-words from the two candidates, that is, words used more than 0.4% of the full text (unless I’ve screwed it up), with words that appear in both lists removed for comparison’s sake:

  • you, one, are, us, can, or, from, when, change, they, week, if
  • fight, he, country, Senator, going, Obama, spending, up, create, get

Is this fair? Certainly not. For instance, if Sen. Obama had used the word country one more time, that would have been on his list also and therefore wouldn’t havfe appeared. Or if Sen. McCain had used the word President one more time, it would have shown up on his list, and the list would have looked quite different. Also, keep in mind I may have screwed the whole thing up. Still. And all this really tells us anyway is that one candidate chose to repeat the phrase one week and the other told his supporters to fight. End Distraction.

Anyway, my point, such as it is. I think I identify three things Sen. Obama chose to hock about in this speech: the week remaining before the election, the idea of his candidacy being the focus of a larger movement, and the false choice idea, which connotes both his new politics (vaddevah dat means) and the dishonesty of his opponents. They aren’t bad things (although I would love to see an emphasis on the continuing movement after next Tuesday, however presumptuous that may seem to pundits), and you know, he’s not a bad speaker, at that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.