Mark Reiter -- The Real Baracketology

By Mark Reiter
Friday, April 3, 2009; 7:47 PM

More than any president since Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama relies on words. His claim on hoary words like "change" and "hope" presented a clear rationale for his unlikely candidacy. His eloquence lifted him out of the Jeremiah Wright firestorm that threatened to derail his candidacy in March 2008. But which of his words have had the most power? Now, in this time of tournament brackets, here is a Sweet 16 of Obamaisms from his speeches, writings, interviews, debates and on-the-fly remarks.

Outsider Region

  • What Americans expect from Washington is action that matches the urgency they feel in their daily lives.
  • I don't care whether you're driving a hybrid or an SUV -- if you're headed for a cliff, you've got to change direction.
  • Reiter pick: Both lines let Obama play the outsider bringing change to Washington. But linking (in a Washington Post op-ed) "action" to people's growing sense of panic was empathic -- and more effective than the image of an SUV in a ditch.

    Either/Or Region

  • There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America.
  • In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?
  • Reiter pick: "There is not a liberal America or a conservative America" remains Obama's most elastic either/or formulation. Gaining national attention in Obama's 2004 Democratic convention keynote, it let him contrast red state and blue state, black and white, Latino and Asian -- whatever the occasion demanded. For sheer utility and durability, and because none of Obama's detractors can refute it, it moves on to the next round.

    Common Sense Region

  • We won.
  • I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves, that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity.
  • Reiter pick: "We won" is Obama's common sense variation on his predecessor's clumsy, gloating "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." In two syllables, it expresses both the obvious (he won) and his impatience with uncooperative Republicans. "I reject the view" is a centrist's warning that we need big government to step in during times of crisis. Like it or not, it will be the dominant theme of the Obama administration. But "we won" wins for brevity.

    All About Me Region

  • I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.
  • We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
  • Reiter pick: Depending on the intensity of your Obamaphilia, "we are the ones" is either a Zen riddle or a subtle call to action. But it reinforced the populist message for change and, therefore, extended Obama's ownership of a political cliché. "Disown him" had fleeting value. After the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's meltdown at the National Press Club, Obama did, in fact, disown him.

    Inspiring Region

  • They said this day would never come. They said our sights were too high.... But on this January night, at this defining moment in our history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do.... We are one people. And our time for change has come.
  • Yes we can.
  • Reiter pick: "Yes we can" may have been a durable slogan -- and especially inspiring to African American voters -- but Obama's victory speech after the Iowa caucuses was the booster rocket for his candidacy. The words were lofty, inclusive and on-message -- and did not wilt upon repetition. They formed the template for the rest of his campaign.

    Candor Region

  • I screwed up.
  • I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests. I think he's drawing the wrong lessons from history.
  • Reiter pick: No matter how satisfying it was to hear the new president slap down the former vice president's defense of torture, "I screwed up" (to explain Tom Daschle's botched cabinet nomination) revealed that, finally, we had a leader in the White House who could identify -- and admit -- a mistake.

    Too Much Candor Region

  • It's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
  • I think when you spread the wealth around it's good for everybody.
  • Reiter pick: Obama's "bitter" statement at a San Francisco fund raiser was enough of a gaffe to earn a suffix and launch the Bittergate controversy. But "spread the wealth" gave John McCain's campaign an opening to paint Obama as a socialist -- and started a silly season of Republican rhetoric that hit bottom with Joe the Plumber mania.

    Counterpunch Regional

  • Don't tell me words don't matter. "I have a dream." Just words?
  • It is going to be part of the president's job to be able to deal with more than one thing at once.
  • Reiter pick: "Words don't matter" was an effective counterpunch in the primaries when Obama was being mocked by Hillary Clinton for, of all things, giving a good speech. Say what? But "more than one thing at once," Obama's response to McCain's call to suspend the campaign and delay the second presidential debate because of the financial crisis, was a defining moment in the '08 race. It painted McCain as erratic and Obama as "no drama," and it turned a virtual dead heat into an advantage for Obama that McCain could never erase.

    And for the tournament champion

  • They said this day would never come. They said our sights were too high.... But on this January night, at this defining moment in our history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do.... We are one people. And our time for change has come.
  • We won.
  • Reiter pick: "They said this day" has been an audience igniter. But "we won" wins for its simplicity and grace -- and for its telling lack of ego. It's not "I won." It's the ultimate expression of two ideals that rarely go together: triumph and inclusion.

    The writer is co-editor of the forthcoming "The Final Four of Everything."

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