Column: Obama and the art of empty rhetoric
By Gideon Rachman, Financial Times
Even his most bitter opponents grant Barack Obama one thing – he makes great speeches. The senator from Illinois is generally held to be a competent debater and an electrifying orator.
The notion that Mr Obama is the new Demosthenes has even made it across the Atlantic. On BBC radio the other day, there was a long discussion of the art of rhetoric, illustrated with clips of the best of Barack. William Rees-Mogg, a venerable former editor of UK newspaper The Times, asserts that Mr Obama is the most inspirational presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy and that “he is, in my view, a better speaker than Kennedy”.
All this leaves me baffled. I have watched Mr Obama speak live; I have watched him speak on television; I have even watched his speeches set to music on a video made by celebrity supporters (www.dipdive.com). But I find myself strangely unmoved – and this is disconcerting. It feels like admitting to falling asleep during Winston Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches” speech.
I will admit one thing. Mr Obama has a nice, gravelly voice – which is perhaps a legacy of his days as a heavy smoker. But his most famous phrases are vacuous. The “audacity of hope”? It would be genuinely audacious to run for the White House on a platform of despair. Promising hope is simply good sense. “The fierce urgency of now”? It is hard to see what Mr Obama means when he says this – other than that some inner voice has told him to run for president.
And then there is “Yes we can” – the phrase that was so inspirational that it inspired Will.i.am of hip-hop group the Black Eyed Peas to make his infamous video, backed up by film stars and musicians such as Scarlett Johansson and Herbie Hancock.
The strumming of guitars and crooning drowns out Mr Obama on the musical version. So I had to consult the text to find out what exactly it is that we can do. “Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.”
This sounds to me like a man doing an impression of what he thinks a great speech might be like. It is the kind of empty exhortation that usually gives politicians a bad name. Peter Sellers, a British comedian of the 1960s, caught the genre nicely in a parody speech: “Let us assume a bold thrust and go forward together. Let us carry the fight against ignorance to the four corners of the earth, because it is a fight that concerns us all.” Mr Obama might easily give a speech like that – although he would probably strip out some of the detail.
Exhortation can make for thrilling rhetoric. But the difference between Mr Obama and some of the great speakers he is sometimes compared with is that Churchill, Kennedy and Martin Luther King were genuinely challenging their audiences. Surrendering might have seemed rational in Britain in 1940. King’s “I have a dream” speech was made at a time when racial segregation was still a reality in the southern US. When King coined the phrase the “fierce urgency of now” (borrowed with acknowledgement by Mr Obama), he was explaining why he had come out against the Vietnam war. Even JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” demanded something from the audience.
Mr Obama is much vaguer and much less bold. He has taken the occasional risk. He likes to remind audiences that he called for higher fuel efficiency standards before an audience of Detroit carmakers.
But, in general, his campaign is relying on some of the most clichéd and least challenging slogans in the American political lexicon: unity not division; the future not the past; change not stagnation; an end to “business as usual”; lobbyists are bad, the people are good. Or as the man himself puts it: “We are choosing hope over fear. We’re choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.”
Why is this stuff so appealing? It may be that, in modern America, standing for “hope” and “unity” is less obvious than it sounds. With the economy close to recession and the US locked into the Iraq war, it is not a very hopeful time. And the Bush era has certainly been one of bitter division between liberals and conservatives – and between red and blue states. It is suggestive that both Mr Obama and John McCain, who is close to wrapping up the Republican party nomination, have cast themselves as candidates who can reach across the partisan divide.
And while Mr Obama’s most “inspirational” phrases are vague to the point of vacuity, he has shown in a series of television debates that he is more than capable of serious discussion. You do not get to be president of the Harvard Law Review if you cannot cope with detail.
So Mr Obama is not relying on empty exhortation because that is all he is capable of. It is a deliberate political strategy. And it makes sense. The more a candidate gets stuck into the detail, the more likely he is to bore or antagonise voters. Appealing to people’s emotions is less dangerous and more effective.
Bill Clinton has said sniffily of Mr Obama that “I think action counts more than rhetoric”. The argument of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is that just because Mr Obama gives great speeches, it does not mean that he will be a great president.
I would reverse that. Just because Mr Obama gives lousy, empty speeches, it does not mean that he will be a lousy, empty president.