Belatedly, on the Cairo speech & Obama rhetoric in general

Ten days ago I was writing a dispatch about Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, when the internet service where I was (in Shaanxi) cut out. The elections in Iran and general question of political change in the Middle East are a topical reminder to get back to this point:

As I started to say earlier, here is a way to think about why Barack Obama's "big" speeches of the past 15 months seem different from normal political rhetoric. It's because they are.

Here are the ones I'm counting as big speeches, starting with the most recent and working backward:

June 4, Cairo: US relations with Islam

May 21, National Archives in DC: anti-terrorism strategy, including torture, habeus corpus, etc

May 17, Notre Dame U: clash of religious values in politics, including over abortion

April 14, Georgetown U: short- and long-term economic strategy

April 5, Prague: reducing nuclear weapons around the world

March 18, 2008, Philadelphia: race and American values

I'm not even counting convention speeches, the inaugural address, his State of the Union, or a bunch of other performances. They were all fine but more like other, normal "good" political speeches.

These six -- including an astonishing five of them in an eight-week burst -- were different from normal rhetoric in the following basic way:

Most of the time, "effective" speeches boil down to finding a better, clearer, cleverer, more vivid, or more memorable way to express what people already think.

The point is probably clearest by analogy to talk radio. People don't listen to Rush Limbaugh -- or, to be "fair" about it, Keith Olbermann in his freshest phase -- to change their political ideas. They want new fuel, new riffs, new outrages. Most political speeches are doing a more polite version of this: reinforcing what people think and, through clearer expression, giving them new conviction in thinking it.

Figuring out how to clarify, express, and even poeticize people's existing views is no trivial achievement. Ronald Reagan gave conservatives new images and languages for expressing their views. Teddy Kennedy has often done so for liberals. George Wallace, in his heyday, for segregationists. You can tell that a speech is in this category when the crowd response is on the lines of "That's right!" Or "You, tell 'em!" or a rapid leap to the feet to cheer. Campaign speeches naturally have a very high quotient of this kind of rhetoric. Most of the time in a campaign, the main goal is to rally and motivate your side, as opposed to changing minds on the other side. So even in Obama's case, most of his campaign rhetoric was reinforcing and revving up: "Yes we can!" "That's change we can believe in." "Not Red states and Blue states but the United States..." Etc.

That's why the speeches above, with one exception, are all from his period as a sitting president rather than as a candidate. The exception was his Philadelphia speech about race, which was less a normal campaign speech than a command-performance, save-the-campaign attempt to change the concept of "race" through which (mostly white) people saw the candidacy of the first non-white politician with a serious chance at the presidency.

What Obama did in that speech is what he has done, or attempted to do, in those subsequent five big speeches as president. Rather than simply reaffirming or reinforcing what much of the public already thinks; and rather than attempting the relatively common political feat of explaining small changes or compromises in policy; he has tried to change the basic way in which we think about large issues. You can look back on his 2004 Democratic convention speech, given before he'd even been elected to the Senate, as a preview of this approach. By 2008, "not Red states or Blue states..." had become a mere catch phrase. In 2004, during the embittered Bush-Kerry campaign, it was something like a new idea. That's what got him such a response in the convention hall (I was there; it was electrifying), and extensions of that approach are what make his big speeches these days seem different from what we generally hear.

If political speeches typically sound "hazy," the reason is that most of the the time excess clarity brings risks. As a journalistic or literary writer, your goal is to make your meaning absolutely as clear as it can possibly be. In political rhetoric, most of the time you want to clarify views only to the extent that most people will still agree. (Yes, we all agree on "protecting the environment" and "keeping the nation safe." So you talk about that, not the more controversial specifics.) Obama's big speeches sound unusual because he's often being quite clear (eg, talking about his white grandmother's view of black people) en route to introducing new "frames" or approaches to basic questions.

I'm not saying that all his plans are going to work. I'm not saying that his big set-piece speeches are cliche-free. As argued earlier, often they're not even that "well written," in a fancy-phrasemaking sense. I am saying: there's a reason they seem similar as a group and different from normal political rhetoric. The difference is, they're asking us to change our minds.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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