Since he swept into the Oval Office on a tide of rhetoric, President Obama has been held as the embodiment of the saying that politicians “campaign in poetry, govern in prose.” This little couplet is apt not only for its accuracy but also its elegance. If we didn’t know that another articulate Democrat, Mario Cuomo, had penned the phrase, it could almost have been written by the President himself (or perhaps his speechwriting wunderkind Jon Favreau).
For those that follow US politics, even if only through the West Wing, we hold these truths to be self-evident. Its politics allow for lofty oratory. In fact, it’s sometimes demanded. The country was founded on exalted ideals. The political posturing is accordingly grand and optimistic. The scale of politics is big and so is the language – especially during campaign time (which Obama has begun).
Brits are too cynical to engage in this type of speechwriting. If a politician here were to speak with the preacher-like cadence and intonation of Obama, they would be ridiculed for pomposity. Nonetheless, that’s not to say we don’t love this delivery when we hear it from others. Witness Bill Clinton’s speech at the Labour Party Conference in 2002 when he attacked the Tories’ new (at the time) ideology of ‘compassionate conservatism.’ To thunderous applause, he stated: “Here is what I want you to know: the rhetoric is compassionate, the conservative is the reality.”
Obama’s speech at Westminster Hall last week was lauded in many quarters and a Leader article in The Times gushed that the “wonderful speech expressed perfectly the spirit that animates and unites the United Kingdom and United States.” Obama has the ability, given his undoubted public speaking talents, to transcend the message. The style is what we see first. However, to suggest everything is just artifice would be churlish. Yes, there were the poetic (and JFK channelling) flourishes like: “We do these things because we believe not simply in the rights of nations, but the rights of citizens.” But there was also the more practical prose associated with problems that the US and UK must confront. He promised Libyans that the Atlantic alliance would not relent until their “shadow of tyranny” was lifted. He also referenced the Arab Spring when acknowledging “the entire world has a stake in the aspirations of a generation that longs to determine its own destiny.”
Obama is good for politics because he shows the power of eloquence. His speeches are ‘events’ and he is one of the few people around that people want to hear; even embittered and embattled politicians. That’s always been his trump card – the man could read the telephone directory and still command the attention of a room. Rhetoric has become a pejorative term over the years but it’s rhetoric that can influence and move people to act. Words can prompt and provoke action.
Regardless of your view of Obama, his charisma is undeniable and when he speaks you feel that you are listening to a man of power and intellect. Rhetoric does need to be reinforced by reality but as an innate communicator; the President is one of the best.