How Obama speaks

Clerestory_window_at_princeton My Princeton hotel room this morning got the news from Philadelphia.  There was an ad for running for Barack Obama and I was impressed, as I always am, by the cadence with which he speaks. 

Senator Obama speaks with a special quality of self assurance, as if he has thought about everything he’s saying for a very long time and he has rendered a decision with such depth and profundity that there is not even the merest chance of contradiction.  The Senator is sorry about this, he seems to be saying, but there is nothing to be done about it.  That’s just the way it is.  The Senator wishes he weren’t reading from tablets, but, well, that’s how the thing falls out.

Obama hits the last syllable of his sentences with assurance.  And then, surprise, surprise, he brings the sentence in for the softest of landings.  This doubles the effect of self assurance.  He enters that last syllable like a lion and leaves it like a lamb.  And that’s because, well, he really merely stating the obvious and it would be unseemly to pound the gavel or make a fuss.

This is deeply presuppositional speech and what it presupposes is that no reasonable man or women can disagree, that this truth is self evident, that the speaker is merely, and with some modesty, pointing out that all of us already know.  More generally, this is the art of politics taken places it hasn’t gone in some time.

The anthropological question (and today, after the heated debate of yesterday, I am prudently and quite pointedly putting my anthropology hat back on) is where did Obama get this very effective rhetorical instrument.  It seems to me ecclesiastical, but it is not the sort of thing he can have got from the likes of Reverend Wright. It is also a little as if from the mold of the newscaster, Cronkite etc.  But it doesn’t appear to have a political precedent, not at the  moment anyhow. 

I think Obama has studied other oratorical exemplars.  And I think he has made this a very careful and purposeful study.  I leave it to someone with an ear better than mine to "reverse engineer" Obama’s style speech and figure out what these influences are.  Some of the secrets of the coming kingdom are there to be divined. 


The Clerestory window of the poets at Princeton

6 thoughts on “How Obama speaks

  1. peter

    I think there is a tendency (eg, in the writings of Michael Silverstein) to view political speech as simply making propositional statements about the world, which statements we can evaluate as to their truth or falsity. But this approach, IMHO, is simply wrong-headed, as it ignores the many diverse purposes for which humans make utterances. Not all politicians are always making propositional statements to describe the world, and indeed, some politicians may only rarely do so. Quite often, politicians are making calls-to-action, either actions to be undertaken by themselves (“if elected, I will do XYZ”) or by other political leaders (“our Government needs to do XYZ”). Of course, to vote for them, we have to believe the action is appropriate (at this time and place) and feasible, and for that a politician may also need to convince us that his or her analysis of the factual situation is accurate (ie, that his/her propositional statements are true).

    What is striking to me about Obama’s speech is that he often makes calls-to-action for actions to be undertaken by his listeners (“we should do XYZ”, by which he means, “you-all should do XYZ”, since the action is not something he can himself do). From past political speeches I have read or seen, it seems to me only JFK, MLK and RFK have spoken in this way, although I am sure there have been many others who did. I sense that this approach and the associated language comes directly from Obama’s work as a community organizer: success in that role comes from persuading people to work on their own behalf. But this approach is also inherently religious, since religious leades usually expend a lot of energy telling their flock (and sometimes the rest of us, also) what we should do.

  2. peter spear

    i think there is an interesting (i’m not going to have the right language here) explanatory or justifying nature to the way that he communicates as well. i agree that he does use language that invites a communion, an invitation, and a beckoning into the actions that he speaks of. and this is powerful stuff.

    i also wonder to what degree his efficacy his due to this kind of explanation. obama was, i understand, a professor for a time, which may lend to this thinking a necessity to make things both motivating and comprehensible. his speech on race was nothing if not an effort to explain a different way of seeing things.

    I’ve been reading charles tilly lately and his explorations of the way that we explain ourselves or answer the why? question and i’ve always been struck by how edifying obama’s speeches tend to be.

  3. MHB

    Obama is also the first politician I’ve heard remix the required “I approved this ad” sound bite. Instead of placing it at the end of the tv spot, @ :50 he says “I approved this ad because I’ll never forget those values”. Brilliant on so many little levels. Now I’m waiting to see if Brand America goes 180 if he’s elected. A trend of joyous art? A re-embrace of our flag by liberals?

  4. Jeff

    I’ve always been fascinated by Obama’s cadence. Some of it is studied, some of it comes from a good ear. As there are “born” musicians, there are “born” speakers. It’s a rhythm that comes from the heart and soul – and not just from the intellect. It’s as much mentoring as it is genetics.

  5. Jeff

    I’ve always been fascinated by Obama’s cadence. Some of it is studied, some of it comes from a good ear. As there are “born” musicians, there are “born” speakers. It’s a rhythm that comes from the heart and soul – and not just from the intellect. It’s as much mentoring as it is genetics.

  6. Alan

    I wish I were the “reverse engineer” this post is searching for! I’m not. But I have some thoughts, perhaps worth considering.

    Interesting observations and questions posed by Grant McCracken here.

    Especially: “This is the art of politics taken places it hasn’t gone in some time.”

    And: “… where did Obama get this very effective rhetorical instrument. It seems to me ecclesiastical …”

    Finally: “I think Obama has studied other oratorical exemplars. And I think he has made this a very careful and purposeful study.”

    In my view, “this art of politics” is the art of connecting with individuals. In Obama’s case, his cadence, inflections and whole oratorical style presented in posture and gesture are playing political- as-musical chords in some deep, emotional and yearning ways. His political performance captivates his audience and creates a sustaining and climaxing feedback between crowd and candidate.

    This re-enforcing emotion between any performer and audience is always something to see and experience first hand. There are memorable examples (Vladimir Horowitz performing in Moscow in 1986) and some informative ones from American politics. Others have already mentioned John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. (RFK was a much better performer than his brother, by the way. JFK did not truly trigger the candidate-crowd connection the way RFK did.) I would add the populist voice of Lyndon Johnson, so often overlooked.

    Johnson was a great speech maker, and he often adopted the very speaker’s strategy mentioned here (the softly spoken endings …) Memorably, in this snippet from a speech to an AFL-CIO national convention in 1964. With a pause and a whisper, Johnson set up a tremendous ovation … “I’m not saying you’ve never had it so good before … … … but it’s true, isn’t it?” Oh yes, there is bombast in Johnson’s speech, and little in Obama’s that passes for such.

    The point about the art of politics is connection. Obama is an artist.

    And, as in all artistry, it is the personal, idiosyncratic recreation of the craft that matters most. Obama’s speaking style is highly polished and deeply personal. That personal touch is what makes it artistry.

    The craft he has clearly learned from many practitioners who have spoken before, including Ronald Reagan, to name a recent, professionally trained political actor. But there are many others worth noting, and I am not sure the strain of political speech that has given us Obama is the one that weaves in the American protestant church tradition. It is not absent, but it is not the main thread.

    Think about Martin Luther King’s legacy of speech and you will hear other civil rights leaders including Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis (now the Representative from Georgia), Andrew Young (the former mayor of Atlanta and UN Ambassador) and Jesse Jackson of Chicago. This is a great tradition of American speech, but it is not Obama’s.

    No. Obama, as Grant McCracken points out — and this is the key — is a student of oratory. Yes, yes, yes!

    My guess is he has listened intently to many, many political speakers. Maybe as a pastime? And I would include some of the following speeches … Hugh Carey’s speech to the 1980 national Democratic convention, Ted Kennedy’s eulogy of his brother Robert in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Churchill’s address to parliament after Dunkirk … and Barbara Jordan’s speech voting to impeach Richard Nixon.

    Now maybe, just maybe, you can hear Barbara Jordan, a brilliant politician and professor from Texas in the speech of Barack Obama.

    The key is that Obama is a student of oratory, that he is an artist who takes what he needs from others but finally, in performance, he re-creates the craft with his own personal genius for the craft.

    He is Horowitz, Miles Davis, Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Shankar, Jimi Hendrix all rolled up into a powerful political speech maker who touches his audience.

    Sorry I’ve gone off on a riff here, but, as usual what an astute post by Professor McCracken.

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