The cliché: Speaking to a joint session of Congress last week, President Obama tried on a shiny, new catch phrase. "Pass this bill," he said 16 times (in some form) over the course of the speech. It seems he liked the sound of it, because he has brought the phrase out at several subsequent speeches this week, (11 times in the Rose Garden ceremony) and the crowd has gratifyingly chanted it back at him. To anyone listening to or writing about the speech, there's a certain deja vu to it all. NPR host Melissa Block said "Pass this bill. Maybe that mantra becomes the 2011 version of 'yes we can' for the Obama campaign." Writing from Richmond, Real Clear Politics' Alexis Simendinger writes, "Barack Obama campaigned here like it was 2008 all over again. But the incumbent's 'Yes We Can' refrain now has a new re-election chorus. 'Pass this bill!'" And Politico wrote, "President Obama's stump speech for his jobs bill sounds so much like it belongs at a campaign rally that his supporters on Tuesday started chanting for the plan using the same rhythm as the 2008 'yes, we can' slogan."
Where's it from: If we look back to the 2008 campaign, though, we find it isn't all that surprising that the media would seek to draw parallels within Obama's rhetoric. In 2008, the Black Eyed Peas remixed his "Yes we can" refrain with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream." So it seems with each new stirring, simple phrase, Obama can't help but remind people of an earlier simple, stirring phrase. "Pass this bill" becomes "yes we can," which becomes "I have a dream," which becomes... you get the idea. That said, "pass this bill" feels awfully bureaucratic as inspirational slogans go.
Why is it catching on? People can't hear a rhetorical pattern without noting the use of that pattern most recently accessible in their memories. No doubt Obama often keeps the speech patterns of black preachers in his mind when he pens his own speeches, and he delivered a "yes we can" speech on the 45th anniversary of the "I have a dream" speech, indicating he was making a sort of intentional homage. But as public speaking experts note, he's also just relying on general tools for successful speeches. Using short, relatable, declarative sentences is a tried and true method, so we shouldn't be surprised to hear echoes of other refrains in modern day ones.
Why else? That said, "Yes we can," is more of a symbol than just a speech technique. It reminds writers of the groundswell of support Obama mobilized in 2008. Though no one held out much hope that yet another speech would fix the wealth of problems Obama faced last week, this week as he continues to hammer the point, his supporters are looking, if not hopeful for its passage, then at least pleased that he's finally taking action. If indeed "pass this bill" turns around Obama's terrible poll numbers, the "Yes we can" parallel will really start to look viable. Ish. Note that a song entitled "Pass This Bill" doesn't quite have the same ring--and we imagine it'd be a tough sell with the record labels.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.