Here is the paradox of Barack Obama's "eloquence": Friends and foes alike recognize that oratory has played an unusally large part in his political ascent. It is beyond question that one 17-minute speech put him on the national map -- his debut address at the Democratic Convention in Boston in 2004. Sometime you should go back and watch that speech again. Nearly nine years later, it is startling how different Obama himself looks -- and how absolutely unchanged his message, language, phraseology, and cadence remain.
(Bonus karmic reminder: That was John Kerry's convention to run, so it was thanks to him that Obama had this shot at national attention. After Kerry lost to George W. Bush, he was one of the first Democratic grandees to think that young Senator Obama could be a plausible contender for the nomination in 2008. Thus on many levels Kerry must have felt that he had "earned" his new role as Obama's secretary of state.)
Back to Obama as a speaker: In addition to that first address, which made his reputation, another speech clearly saved his campaign when it was in genuine danger of collapse. That was of course what we think of as the "Race in America" speech -- the actual title was, "A More Perfect Union" -- which he gave in Philadelphia five years ago next month when the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah "God damn America!" Wright was threatening to torpedo Obama's prospects. For the record, think of some of the other speeches that have played an important part either in Obama's campaign successes or in the shape of his presidency. There's a reason I'm reminding you of this list.
- His Jefferson-Jackson Dinner stemwinder in Des Moines, in November 2007, which was a big energizing step toward his success in the Iowa caucuses, which in turn was his crucial breakthrough in the primaries.
- His "future of Islam" speech in Cairo six months into his presidency (official title: "A New Beginning,"), and a few months later his improbable Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. This was improbable both in his selection as laureate and in the theme he chose to emphasize, which included a defense of war as a means toward peace.
- His all-out pitch on behalf of his health-care bill before a Joint Session of Congress a few months before the hair's-breadth passage of the bill
- His "national healer" speeches after the shootings in Tucson two years ago and Newtown two months ago
- His continuous run of speeches, starting with one in Osawotomie, Kansas, in December 2011 and reaching through his second inaugural address last month and his State of the Union address this week (but not including his unremarkable convention speech last summer), all of which advanced the case for his economic agenda. This is the agenda he would characterize as "growing from the middle class out" and that the Republicans would characterize/caricature as "you didn't build that."
Speeches matter at every level of politics, and anyone who makes it to the presidency has to have scored some big rhetorical successes along the path to victory. Even my one-time employer, Jimmy Carter, who was not known for the brilliance of his formal orations from the White House, had been a mesmerizing extemporaneous speaker on the campaign trail, especially through the primaries. That was a big part of why he won.
Hillary Clinton might seem to work against this theory, since she has built her reputation and popularity on things other than big, memorable speeches. But of course she has not yet made it to the presidency, and if she eventually does, there will presumably be some big, successful speeches along the way.
But given that formal speeches make up a bigger part of Obama's still-unfolding legacy than, say, Bill Clinton's, note this remarkable fact: You can barely remember a word of what he says.
Obama's eloquence exists almost exclusively on the macro scale -- the overall impression he gives of the subject he is wrestling with, and of his own temperament and cast of mind. You could take John Kennedy as the opposite extreme; his speeches are far more memorable, and quotable, for epigrammatic phrases than for their more elaborated thoughts. Abraham Lincoln may be the one example in our public life of success at both levels. His first and second inaugural addresses, plus the Gettysburg Address, are considered in a class of their own because they combine lasting beauty of phrasing -- "malice toward none," "mystic chords of memory," "government of the people, by the people, for the people," "every drop of blood drawn by the lash" -- with depth of thought.
No one else can play in Lincoln's league -- and, perhaps in growing awareness of that fact, as Obama's career has gone on he has been more careful and sparing in drawing connections between himself and another young legislator-become-president from Illinois. (Six years ago, in his original announcement speech in Springfield, he said, "In the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States." Tuesday night, in the U.S. Capitol, on the 204th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, Obama did not mention his name.) Still, the point remains that for a famous orator, Obama is remarkably hard to quote.