Cinque Henderson’s book on race and America’s public schools will be published this year.
Barack Obama’s place in the pantheon of American presidents is now a historian’s parlor game. Is he a transformational leader like Franklin Roosevelt or more of a cultural figure like John Kennedy? If we were, however, to compare him only with the titans of black America, I think it is fair to say he is bested by only one person: Martin Luther King Jr. America was a completely different place in 1968, when King died, than it was in 1955, in the early days of the civil rights movement, transformed in large measure by the martyred leader’s remarkable words and deeds. If Obama’s policies survive the coming Republican onslaught, the president may yet eke past the civil rights icon in futhering material and social progress — even if in oratory, King is and will always be the clear winner.
In a new book, “We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama,” we have been given the first partial, though still substantive, look at Obama’s words, and it is a political partisan’s dream to see them so finely gathered here. The editors, Washington Post columnists E.J. Dionne Jr. and Joy-Ann Reid, have assembled 26 of his best speeches, a greatest hits of sorts, tracking his rise from a little-known U.S. senator to the nation’s first black president, with each effort presented as a milestone in his political journey. With the curious exception of his speech announcing his intention to run for president in 2008, the most memorable of his orations are all here, from the 2002 speech opposing the war in Iraq to the eulogy grieving the victims of the Charleston, S.C., church massacre in 2015. Reading them, one realizes that despite how crowded the field of American political oratory may be — Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X and countless other boldface names who could each give a master class in speechifying — Obama has nevertheless managed to carve out a unique place for himself.
As the editors remind us in their marvelous introduction, Obama was the first politician since Reagan to ignite a national career with a single speech, his ringing tribute to blue- and red-state America at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The editors are plainly fans, comparing him to the most illustrious of our nation’s presidents. Given the generally poor state of American oratory today (once upon a time, figures from senators to governors could be counted on to give presidents an oratorical run for their money; Daniel Webster, anyone?), the editor’s enthusiasms can be forgiven. I am not sure I agree with them, however, that Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes we can,” ever became a “cultural phenomenon.” Beyoncé is a cultural phenomenon. But “Yes we can,” borrowed from Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers chant of “Si se puede,” a phrase rich with context in Spanish, felt more like a placeholder in English, waiting for something more thrilling to come along to unite the crowd.
But, ultimately, what type of speechmaker is Obama? Stylistically, he disdains the bon mot — the political pull-quote that we associate with most great speeches. There are no “ask not what your country can do”s, no “better angels of our nature,” no “there is nothing to fear”s of the kind that have made fixtures of some of the country’s most famous political utterances. Formally, the familiar figures of alliteration and chiasmus, which Kennedy loved (“ask not” being the most famous), Obama broadly eschews, though syntactical repetition is his go-to effect, as in his stirring speech objecting to the Iraq War, in which he repeated the phrase “I don’t oppose all wars” three times before announcing his opposition to “dumb wars.” Temperamentally, in dark times, Obama prefers uplift to chastened sorrow. We will never find him delivering as mournful a sermon as Bobby Kennedy did upon learning of the death of King, quoting Aeschylus’s poem on “the awful grace of God” to the anguished crowd. Obama’s speech on the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., whistled past despair.
Obama has at times been called professorial, most recently by his wife. But this is another way of saying he is not a barn-burner. He does not burst with righteous indignation. If Ta-Nehisi Coates can be said to have introduced atheism into the stream of black American intellectual thought, then Obama can be said to have introduced a type of urgent secular sermonizing into black American political speech. His natural speaking voice is tonally as much like a Midwestern homilist’s as a Southern Baptist’s. In that sense, he is surprisingly less like King than he is like Malcolm X, who was born in Nebraska, and whose innate intellectualism made it hard to reach the impassioned spiritual heights of a Southern-born civil rights activist. Obama has been intrigued by the nationalist turned color-blind ecumenicalist at least since the 2008 primaries, when in the do-or-die contest against Hillary Clinton in South Carolina he stirred a crowd by invoking the “you been hoodwinked, bamboozled” speech from the movie “Malcolm X.”
On the matter of the substance of Obama’s speeches, the editors make more stringent claims. Obama, they suggest, “was remarkably ineffective . . . in making the case for two of his major achievements, the economic stimulus and the health care program that bears his name.” This is not a minor point, and as the health-care law faces repeal, it is hard not to wish that a more decisive effort had been made.
What the book is not designed to do is account for the unrehearsed speeches of the 44th president. Perhaps “speeches” is the wrong word, but I’m referring to the impromptu comments Obama made at the start of his presidency, saying a Cambridge, Mass., police officer had “acted stupidly” for arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for breaking into his own home in 2008. These fateful comments, lasting no longer than a few minutes, sliced open a wound in the body politic — the coalition of blacks, working-class whites and progressives — that Bill Clinton first sutured together some 20 years ago. According to a recent article, Obama’s popularity dropped 10 percentage points among the white working class and never recovered. It was a harbinger of things to come.
What his comments, along with his second-term initiatives, revealed was that he leaned by natural instinct toward black Americans and white progressives, the first cultivated by his marriage to Michelle, the second by his upbringing in Hawaii as the son of a white academic. When the interests of those two constituencies aligned, Obama acted swiftly. Hence, the Gates imbroglio. When they diverged, he sided with the progressives, betting rightly that black Americans would stick by him no matter what. Climate change, Iran, same-sex marriage are the preoccupations of progressive intellectuals, not black people or the white working class.
Those progressive instincts — the idea that we must constantly be moving forward and working to improve upon the nation’s character — are also partly a result of Obama’s immersion in the words of his most admired political forebear, Lincoln. Obama so deeply absorbed the lesson of Lincoln’s great speech at Gettysburg, that Americans be “dedicated to the unfinished work” of democracy, that the idea exists as the invisible backdrop to nearly every speech he gives, certainly the ones collected here. In 26 speeches, I counted nearly 30 explicit references to “remaining work” and “unfinished tasks.” His use of the word “progress” exceeds even that. Lincoln, as the editors point out, is truly Obama’s “first love.” But that affection and the need to continue that progressive forward movement may have also been the causes of Obama’s most fatal political mistake.
As he pressed the case for an expanded progressive morality during his second term, most obviously with same-sex marriage, he would ultimately use the power of the national government to defend the rights of transgender students in North Carolina to use any public bathrooms they wanted. Obama lost North Carolina in 2012. His chosen successor, Clinton, echoing Obama’s progressive stance, lost it too, along with Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, states once thought a lock for Democrats. An Ohio union leader would tell The Washington Post that once-loyal Democrats deserted her because they thought she cared more about what bathroom people should use than about creating jobs.
Were it not for the 22nd Amendment (and his wife’s readiness to return to civilian life), Obama, whose gift for language is unmatched in contemporary times, may well have been able to paper over the widening divide in his party and turn back Donald Trump’s frontal assault on the Democratic base. He averred as much in a recent interview with David Axelrod, his former campaign stratetgist. But Clinton, never much of an orator, was helpless against Trump’s crude and crudely effective jabs. Any historian interested in Obama’s legacy would do well to start with this excellently curated and finely assessed look at Obama’s written and spoken words.
But as Trump continues to tweet from the dank basement of American life, threatening to roll back Obama’s signature accomplishments, the notion that the legacy of the most eloquent president of the past 30 years may have been undone by a few unscripted remarks he made about a cop in the opening months of his presidency, exacerbated by his attachment to the words of our greatest president, may turn out to be the most distressing and ironic turn in modern political history. There will be many more tweets from Trump’s White House before we know for sure.
Edited by E.J. Dionne and
Bloomsbury. 337 pp. $25