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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."