CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The power of language

Finding political strength in the power of words

The 2008 presidential campaign has witnessed the rise of a whole arsenal of new political weapons, including Internet fundraising and sophisticated microtargeting of voters. For Sen. Barack Obama, however, the most powerful weapon has been one of the oldest.

Not since the days of the whistle-stop tour and the radio addresses that Franklin D. Roosevelt used to hone his message while governor of New York has a presidential candidate been propelled so much by the force of words, according to historians and experts on rhetoric.

Obama’s emergence as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination has become nearly as much a story of his speeches as of the candidate himself. He arrived on the national scene with his address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, his campaign’s key turning points have nearly all involved speeches, and his supporters are eager for his election-night remarks nearly as much as for the vote totals. [complete article]

Obama and the power of words

Mr. Obama is simply campaigning for office in the same way he says he would operate if he were elected. “We’re not looking for a chief operating officer when we select a president,” he said during a question and answer session at Google headquarters back in December.

“What we’re looking for is somebody who will chart a course and say: Here is where America needs to go — here is how to solve our energy crisis, here’s how we need to revamp our education system — and then gather the talent together and then mobilize that talent to achieve that goal. And to inspire a sense of hope and possibility.”

Like Ronald Reagan did. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Language is the thread out of which the human experience is woven. We are not alone because we can speak and understand.

To play down the importance of Obama’s oratory is not only an insult to those who find him inspiring; it also exhibits a stunning blindness to the context. We’re coming to the end of eight years with a president whose communications skills were not simply below average for a president; they were below average, period.

Bush likes to pretend that when he’s giving a press conference, he’s doing it off-the-clock. The hard work of a president happens outside the earshot of those journalists with their pesky questions. But everyone knows this is a charade. Bush tries to make up for his communication deficit with humor and put-downs, but if the president doesn’t embarrass his audience as much as he used to, it’s not because he’s become much more adept; it’s simply that we’ve got used to his clumsiness.

Obama on the other hand, doesn’t merely inspire; he raises the hope that when the president of the United States steps on to the world stage in 2009, he will make Americans proud. He will be capable of being both a president and executive ambassador — never has America more dearly needed one.

As for what makes Obama such a powerful speaker, it seems misleading to me to view this in terms of oratory. It goes beyond rhetoric, cadence, delivery and the technical skills of effective speech-making. It comes, as Obama himself acknowledged when describing his first experience in front of a rally when “I knew that I had them, that the connection had been made.” This ability to connect with his audience — this is what’s driving Obama’s momentum. Those who lack the same ability might want to play down its value but it hardly seems like an optional extra among the assets we would hope to find in a future president.

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4 thoughts on “CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The power of language

  1. Enzo

    Why and how, then, one might wish to ask, does Obama connect with his audience?

    I do not consider him an exceptional orator. If he continues to grow, he should become one.

    When Obama connects, it’s because of three simple things: he has a message; it ~is his~ message; and it is ~the~ message his audience wants to hear.

    The message is that we can accomplish the change we desire. Short and simple as that message is, it has been shortened even further to, “Yes we can.” Do not underestimate this message. It not only says a great deal — some say it says whatever people may wish it to say — but it says it with confident, bold, even defiant determination.

    It is the message a great many people, not only Americans, want to hear. It is the message they, and in particular Americans, have increasingly wanted to hear not for eight years, but, if they’re old enough, for several decades. It is the message the young have always wanted to hear. It is the message the old who may be wary of change will listen to.

    Obama owns that message. I imagine he made it his own many years before he found himself in a position to run for the presidency. When he did decide to run, I imagine it was because he considered he could convince enough others to make it their own, too. And he seems to be doing just that.

  2. Jacob Freeze

    Enzo sums up Obama: “The message is that we can accomplish the change we desire.”

    In the real world, it’s probably more important that we can’t stop the changes we don’t desire: catastrophic climate change, nuclear proliferation, and collapsing finacial markets.

    This message obviously isn’t “what people want to hear,” as Enzo says, and maybe that standard works in politics, but elsewhere it isn’t exactly respectable…

    An old man with heart disease walks into a doctors office, and he wants to hear that he can stop taking that blood-pressure medicine that makes him feel drowsy. He wants to hear that he can eat steak and get drunk every day and run a four-minute mile.

    In the world of medicine, Mr. Obama’s habit of telling people “what they want to hear” would make him a dangerous quack, and it’s lucky for him that politicians aren’t judged by the same standards as doctors.

  3. Paul Woodward

    There’s a dimension to the progressive movement that, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t get much attention — at least in the form of self-criticism. It is what I would call an underlying resistance to change. It’s not for lack of visions of what change would look like, what would be desirable and what would be for the greater good. It comes out of a sense that the forces we want to resist are too powerful and that the best we can do is speak out and shout truths that we imagine few are interested in hearing. In these acts of defiance there is a sense of nobility and principle and a great deal of self-righteousness, but then once we’re done we can sit back and console ourselves with the thought that if nothing changes it wasn’t because we didn’t try. What we are less inclined to examine is whether we already shackled ourselves with the expectation that nothing was going to change anyway.

  4. Enzo

    Jacob, old men and young, with or without heart disease, and regardless of what their doctors or anyone else may or may not tell them, die. No matter the extent to which they may choose to acknowledge or ignore this, they know it. It’s instinctive. As the oxymoron would have it, “that’s life.”

    Surely, though, you are not comparing human death to catastrophic climate change, nuclear proliferation and the like?

    Are you concerned about the extent to which Obama and/or his supporters may be aware of the trouble we’re in? I think such a concern is realistic, rational and sane. I will continue to have it myself. But I also see, increasingly, that many of us are all too well aware of our troubles and are suffering, sometimes wildly and desperately, to find a way through them. Surely you do not believe there is no such way?

    I’m reminded of Country Joe and the Fish’s, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag”:

    Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
    Uncle Sam needs your help again.
    Yeah, he’s got himself in a terrible jam
    Way down yonder in Vietnam
    So put down your books and pick up a gun,
    Gonna have a whole lotta fun.

    And it’s one, two, three,
    What are we fighting for?
    Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
    Next stop is Vietnam;
    And it’s five, six, seven,
    Open up the pearly gates,
    Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
    Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

    The rest of the lyrics are here:

    Of course, there ~is~ still time to wonder why. There ~is~ a way. And there’s time to find it, or build it, and to get onto it and get moving. Yes we can.

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