American political oratory has been going steadily downhill since at least Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy," if not since the Gettysburg Address. To be sure, there have been some recent bright spots. Nixon's "Checkers" speech was a brilliant piece of rhetoric from a man who has never been given enough credit, for good or ill, for his ability to articulate the feelings of millions his fellow Americans. No one, even those of us who aren't quite sure what it means, will ever forget Kennedy's famous chiasmus; and the elder Bush's "thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky" is a lovely and memorable mini-paean to diversity. Even poor dotty Jimmy Carter with his address on "malaise," despite a banality of phrasing that bordered on the pathological ("Ten days ago I had planned to speak to you again about a very important subject—energy"), managed to hit on something about modern life that is ineffable unless you have read Heidegger and John XXIII. Few politicians in this or any age have equaled the late Jimmy Traficant's gift for invective:
Mr. Speaker, Medicare trust funds lost another $4 billion. Payroll contributions keep going down. Maybe it's the type of jobs that are being created. Check this out. How about a handkerchief folder, a drawstring knotter, a hooker inspector, a pantyhose crotch closer machine operator supervisor, a muff winder, a fur blower, a wizzer operator, a brassiere cup molder fitter? Evidently, Mr. Speaker, when American workers become muff-winding brassiere fitters and fur-blowing wizzer operators, the Medicare trust fund will continue to lose money.
In 2004, a handsome young Senate candidate gave a remarkable autobiographical address at the Democratic National Convention. Drawing on his life as the son of a Kenyan Muslim exchange student and a white daughter of a World War II veteran, raised in Hawaii and the Philippines and graduating from Harvard Law School despite his odd-sounding name, it captured the attention of millions of people who otherwise had no interest in the week's blandly coronal proceedings in Boston. It remains a shame to this day that this moving and funny speech had to be wasted on bolstering the electoral prospects of an empty suit like John Kerry. Four years later, after triumphing over a woman who has never uttered a memorable phrase in her life, the orator became first his party's nominee, then his country's president. It was difficult not to be heartened by this assurance that, in an age of officialese and stat-dropping, it was still possible to make it in politics almost entirely on the strength of one's ability to do things with words.
We Are the Change We Seek is a volume of Barack Obama's speeches that appeared a week after Donald Trump took the Oath of Office. Its editors, E.J. Dionne and Joy-Ann Reid, set up our expectations very early—on the book's first full page, in fact—when, after having compared him to Lincoln and FDR, they quote Obama responding to a compliment from Harry Reid, who had called one of his speeches "phenomenal."
"I have a gift, Harry," Obama replied.
More than 12 years after that evening in Boston, it is worth asking what exactly that gift is. Certainly a great deal of what Obama said—to say nothing of what he did—now looks pretty thin. It is hard not to think that with the DNC speech, and the two memoirs of which it is essentially a distillation, he more or less exhausted his major themes.
The first item collected here, entitled "What I Am Opposed to Is a Dumb War" by the editors, is a speech delivered in 2002 in Chicago. Witty, sarcastic, and brutally logical, it remains a concise encapsulation of the reasons millions of non-pacifists with no illusions about Saddam Hussein's beneficence opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet, in this early speech, what we have come to think of as the hallmarks of Obama's rhetoric—Lincolnesque phrasing, quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., quaint local anecdotes—are curiously absent.
The worst words in the Obama lexicon are "cynical" and its variants, which appear in almost every one of these 27 speeches. His auditors are forever being asked with a steady, cloying, increasingly oppressive optimism to "rise to this moment," to "have passion" and "a strategy," to aspire to "a sense of purpose," to "feel" things like "urgency" and "hopefulness," to participate in "a conversation worth having," to "summon a new spirit," to remind ourselves that "change happens"—as if believing things or wanting to do them, considered in the abstract and putting aside the question of what exactly those things are, were a virtue. Is it heartless to point out that Lin Biao and Lizzie Borden were not exactly lacking in objectives and can-do spirit? After a while this nagging omnidirectional insistence on sincerity—"Let me be clear" is another Obama favorite—leaves one with the impression that he is less interested in public policy or even in principles than he is in tautologically insisting on the purity and intensity of his own motivation. He ends up coming off not so much as a politician with concrete goals as a sort of motivator-in-chief, an elementary school teacher desperate to impart enthusiasm to his 50 state-sized classroom.
Worse than the serially vague inducement to activity, though, is the pure gibberish that all politicians speak but for which Obama, given his obvious ability to think and write, deserves more scorn. What does it mean to say that "the single-most [sic] powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We'" or to assert that we have "invested in energy efficiency in every way imaginable"? "We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar." So that our grandchildren will transport themselves effortlessly across the astral plane with hope crystals?
Sometimes this nonsense is a matter of going in for bad quotes. The problem with Dr. King's old saw about "the fierce urgency of now" is that, however good it may sound at first, it is impossible to escape the conclusion after a moment's reflection that you will have a hard time feeling urgent about 2090, much less yesterday or last week, unless you are Marty McFly. What would it mean to "put [our] hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day"? Arcs are, as a rule, already bent. If you want to twist it some other way, you'll need a welder. What direction is the hope of a better day in anyway—and if you've melted the arc, wouldn't it be too hot for your fingers? In any case Obama's appropriation misses King's point, which was not about the efficacy of our actions but our faith in providence.
These are not merely aesthetic criticisms. Those more interested in Obama as a political rather than a rhetorical phenomenon will note that the first negative line in his 2004 DNC address was a dig at NAFTA and that in the same speech he advocates using the corporate tax rate against companies that offshore jobs. These are themes he echoed in 2008 but which he abandoned by the end of his second term in favor of slandering opponents of multilateral trade agreements as "mercantilist." The same fear of inertia that characterizes Obama's speeches was the most marked feature of his tenure in office. It is hard to think of a single thing that, apart from the expansion of Medicaid, can be said in favor of the Affordable Care Act by anyone who is not employed by a major insurance company. Yet it remains his self-proclaimed signature domestic achievement in part because it is his only one.
These speeches have other faults, including those of usage and fact and sense. Obama is not the first politician who could have benefited from a reminder that it was Cain who coined the phrase "my brother's keeper." The "enormity of the task ahead," another one of his favorites, was an unwitting, blackly humorous sop to political opponents inclined to linguistic prescriptivism. His reference to "words on a parchment" still grates on the ears of those who know that "parchment" is not generally used as a countable noun except in reference to specific ancient and medieval manuscripts. "Barack" is not an "African name," whatever that might be, meaning "blessed," but rather a Hebrew name—Baruch—whose most common Arabic equivalent is Mubarak. "No nation—large or small, wealthy or poor, is immune to what this means" is a phrase that makes sense, I guess, if meaning is a disease.
There are also faults of presentation. Inconsistent capitalization of words like "Senator" and some strange punctuation choices speak to the hastiness with which this volume seems to have been assembled and to the editors' bizarre quasi-documentarian predilections. I have never seen a book of speeches that included stage directions ("[Begins to sing]") or attempted to reproduce audience interpolations. The effect of reading "AUDIENCE: For too long!" or "AUDIENCE MEMBER: I love you, President! PRESIDENT: I love you back"—why no exclamation point in the response?—or "AUDIENCE: Four more years!" or "AUDIENCE: Nooo!"—why three Os as opposed to two or four?—is actually to make us question the implicit value of the words appearing on the page. Perhaps the lesson is that, as Grateful Dead fans always say, it's way better live.
Another problem with this collection is that, in seeking to be representative of Obama's entire political career, it inevitably ends up reproducing material that could not possibly interest anyone on or off the page, at least not as an example of good or even moderately noteworthy speechmaking:
For our part, America is on track to reach the emissions targets that I set six years ago in Copenhagen—we will reduce our carbon emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. And that's why, last year, I set a new target: America will reduce our emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels within ten years from now.
I can't imagine even the editors thinking that this qualifies as a specimen of "rhetorical genius" or that "for the wealthiest countries, a Green Climate Fund should only be the beginning" is the sort of thing that "Americans will return to … because ours is a country where there will always be a market for hope." But maybe I'm just being cynical.