More on Obama and "educational" rhetoric

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Several days ago I argued that what made Barack Obama's "big" speeches sound unusual was that they attempted something that among politicians is indeed rare: Not expressing our preexisting views with new clarity and edge but instead asking us to change our minds. I also said it was no accident that Obama had saved these ambitious speeches until he was in the White House, since a campaign was a time for troop-rallying rhetoric rather than asking people to think too hard.

Herewith one message in agreement and one in dissent. First, from Eric Redman, author of The Dance of Legislation (and longtime close friend of mine) who had been a devotee of Richard Neustadt's famous presidential-power analyses in college and eventually delivered a eulogy for Neustadt and contributed to a memorial volume about him. The turn in Obama's rhetoric after the election, Redman says,

made me think of Neustadt's enigmatic advice in 1968 when I was about to take time off from school to go write speeches for Senator Magnuson. Dick had written campaign speeches for President Truman. His writing was finely worked, highly polished. I asked for advice in the craft.  He frowned and thought carefully. Then he said, "Remember, a campaign is not a good time to educate the public." I puzzled over that for 35 years, and repeated it, partly for a laugh (which it produced), in my eulogy at his memorial service. 

It was not until I was doing the research for "Neustadt in Brazil" [in the memorial volume] that I listened to him on tape explain (in response to a questioner criticizing Lula [da Silva, prez of Brazil] for not living up to his campaign promises) that the time to educate the people (impliedly with speeches) is when you are in office. Neustadt was not only recommending that Lula do it, he was explaining why it would work. Then it all made sense to me, and I was even able to explain to some who had heard the eulogy and, like me, been puzzled ever since hearing the original advice.

Now, and after the jump, dissent from Carlyn Meyer, who thinks I am under-valuing the content of Obama's stump speeches through the campaign:

While I appreciate your annotation of the five big speeches since his election (plus the race speech), I have to disagree that the basic stump speech differed in quality.  If anything, he used it to test out his broad concepts and way of speaking to people.  Here's why:
    Most of the media hyped Obama's campaign speeches as brilliant 'oratory' or 'rhetoric' - not in the Greek sense but as an ambiguous cross between other American orators (Lincoln, MLK) and showmanship.   That people came to hear the 'oratory' was the biggest hoax the media latched onto - at the expense of accurate reporting that plagued reporters and punditry throughout the campaign.
    
    They came to hear Obama, and the crowds kept growing, because of the content of his basic stump speech, not the 'delivery' (or 'rhetoric' as the media calls it).  The content is what separated him as a candidate from the beginning.
    
    I campaigned for eight days in a small Iowa town of 10,000 before the January 3rd, 2008, primary.  A friend and I drove into Iowa on a Sunday night to avoid a colossal snow storm, the worst of the season, that blew in after midnight.  We were to hear Obama speak the next morning at a high school gym at 8:45 (maybe it was 9:45).  The highways were single file; the snow drifts huge and unsettled; frozen ice was everywhere.  Even by Iowa standards, it was a treacherous morning.  We were stunned when we arrived at the gym.  Over 200 people were there, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,  eager to hear Obama's address.  He came in and began on time.
    
    On first hearing his stump speech, these are the points I believe made it unique:
    
    1.  He put the all-white crowd at ease immediately with his now-famous riff on 'not looking like your ordinary candidate...with a funny name'.  He didn't patronize them.  He was black, they were white.  Acknowledging that in a light-hearted and not PC way visibly put everyone at ease.  No 800 lb. gorilla in that room. 
    
    2.   Never once did he use a racial term like Black, Asian, African-American, white, etc.  It was a post-racial speech; this in itself was a new way of approaching race through ignoring it.  
    
    3.    Moreover, it didn't distract from his central point: the key element holding progress back and keeping Congress from passing anything meaningful is the hyper-partisanship, divisive, blue/red state culture of Washington (spilled over into the body politic).  Obama underscored we have all the talent and knowledge to make government work, that crafting legislation is not rocket science: something else held us back.
    
    4.     It was his sticking to and elaborating from this central theme that made people want to come back and bring their friends.  Why?  Because it perfectly reflected how the voters were feeling, the disgust most Americans had with a political culture that had degenerated so far.  Other politicians will mention hyper-partisanship in a litany of woes, Obama set the need to overcome it as the central theme of his campaign.  Division along partisan lines, not race, religion, even ideology was the real division holding America back.  Taking action on it was simple.  He was the only candidate focusing on this: vote for him.   Implicitly he said: vote for me on this if for no other reason.   The election results show many people did just that, despite their reservations or even blatant racism.
    
    5.      Another feature of Obama's stump speech was his ability to set out a clear, strategic framework for how he thinks and works.  Instead of Hillary-esque 10-point single issue programs, he linked the economy, energy and the environment together.  He talked in concepts!  He showed his vision of things and the dynamic integration of events instead of the dull, overdone recitation of woes most politicians stick to. People ate it up, even as the media dismissed him as too professorial.  They kept coming. The most brilliant intellectual and the poorly educated alike took away a lot from a simple Obama speech.  The big five you pointed out: even more.
    
    I'm raising all this because I think Obama's ability to change the framework of political discussion - and how people see events - is fundamental to his success as a president.  He brings an alternate world view to the job.  And that's big. (When have we ever heard a US President speak to the frustration of Islamic nations under colonialism as well as being caught as proxies in Cold War power struggles - within the first three paragraphs of an 11 page speech?!) People instinctively  are drawn to it. It makes sense.
 
Yet how Obama frames big issues like race, Islam and civil liberties is so fundamentally different from other politicians - the challenge (and danger) he faces is how he will change the facts on the ground enough to embed that vision within the American political culture. 
    
    For example, sometimes I think Obama is pursuing so many things at one time thinking that perhaps he can seed energy, health care, a new foreign policy, etc. enough that they can be finished off by his successors.  Get the nose of many camels under many tents - instead of satisfying each constituency.
 
 This could be the link between Obama's vision his pragmatism that so many pundits and reporters trip over.  Watch how the 'public plan' is written into his health care legislation. That'll be the tip-off. 

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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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