Press Box

How Obama Does That Thing He Does

A professor of rhetoric cracks the candidate’s code.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama bringeth rapture to his audience. They swoon and wobble, regardless of race, gender, or political affiliation, although few understand exactly why he has this effect on them.

No less an intellect than The New Yorker’s George Packer confesses that moments after a 25-minute campaign speech by Obama in New Hampshire concluded, he couldn’t remember exactly what the candidate said. Yet “the speech dissolved into pure feeling, which stayed with me for days,” he writes.

Given that many of his speeches are criminally short on specifics, as Leon Wieseltier writes this week, how does Obama do that thing he does? A 2005 paper (abstract) by University of Oregon professor of rhetoric David A. Frank unpeels Obama’s momentous 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address (video and text here) for clues to his method. Obama’s spellbinding oration earned near-universal raves, including one from establishment conservative Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, and its echoes can be heard in every speech he’s given as a candidate for president.

Obama relies, Frank writes, on a “rhetorical strategy of consilience, where understanding results through translation, mediation, and an embrace of different languages, values, and traditions.” He credits the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber with translating Obama’s cross-cultural signals in a 2004 campaign profile that documents the candidate’s leap from the Illinois senate to the U.S. Senate. Scheiber observes:

Whereas many working-class voters are wary of African American candidates, whom they think will promote black interests at the expense of their own, they simply don’t see Obama in these terms. This allows him to appeal to white voters on traditional Democratic issues like jobs, health care, and education—just like a white candidate would.

Bill Clinton disarmed race for blacks by inviting them to talk about it. Obama disarms race for white people by largely avoiding the topic. When he does talk about race, he makes sure to juxtapose the traumas experienced by nonblacks with those experienced by African-Americans, but without ever equating the two. His rhetoric is designed to bridge the space between whites and blacks so they can occupy a place where common principles reside and the “transcendent value of justice,” as Frank writes, can be shared.

For instance, in a 2005 speech honoring civil rights hero John Lewis, Obama talks about campaigning for the Senate in Cairo, Ill., a town synonymous with overt racism. Obama is accompanied by Sen. Dick Durbin, to whom he directly compares himself. Obama calls himself “a black guy born in Hawaii with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas” and Durbin “the son of Lithuania immigrants born into very modest means in east St. Louis.” They’re both improbable success stories, and had the pair visited Cairo together 30 years previous, who knows what would have happened?

Obama’s worries about what sort of reception he and Durbin will receive turn out to be baseless: It’s an enthusiastic, mixed crowd, a living demonstration of the racial progress we’ve made, thanks to the courage of John Lewis and people like him.

In his 2004 convention speech, Obama concedes that we Americans have our differences. While race, geography, politics, and sexual orientation may separate individuals, he insists “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.” The same words issued by George W. Bush’s mouth would move nobody, but a boundary walker like Obama has a way of making them sound genuine. The bonus point for Obama is that by calling for unity, he can also subtly reject the identity politics that have crippled the Democratic Party.

As the candidate who prides himself on disagreeing without being disagreeable, Obama takes on a Christlike quality for lots of people, especially white people. If a white American doesn’t feel guilty about race, you can be almost certain that he feels anxious about it. Believe me, if these people had a street address where they could go and get absolution, they’d take the next taxi. Obama has a talent for extending forgiveness to the guilty and the anxious without requiring an apology from them first. Go forth and sin no more, he almost says, and never mind the reparations. No wonder they call him the brother from another planet.

He also knows how to comfort voters with a national narrative of his own invention. As Frank writes, the Song of Obama usually begins with references to Thomas Jefferson, a self-contradicting political thinker whose stock—for good reason—has not always been high in African-American circles. Next, he ropes in Abraham Lincoln, whom he describes as less than a perfect emancipator in this 2005 speech. And yet Obama, a tall, gangly, lawyer whose political career was made in Springfield, Ill., slyly compared himself to Lincoln when he declared for the presidency. Lincoln, Obama said, was “a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer” who “tells us that there is power in words” and “tells us there is power in conviction.”

Obama’s national narrative notes both Roosevelts before calling on Martin Luther King Jr. and, as everybody knows, Ronald Reagan. The implication, of course, is that the Obama candidacy stands as the fulfillment of the American ideal, and by casting their ballot for him, voters can participate in that transcendent moment. It’s a dizzying notion. No wonder George Packer’s mind went vacant after he heard Obama speak.

In his speeches, Obama pretends to be a hero out of Joseph Campbell. He talks about being on a journey that is about more than just hope and change. If you want to walk together down his American road, he wants you to be prepared for hard work. It’s never going to be easy. He warns his listeners to beware of the cynics and the they-say and they-said naysayers who believe the quest is hopeless.

Obama speeches aren’t all nonstop inspiration, mind you. Just as John McCain is stuck on addressing “my friends” in his speeches, Obama can’t resist starting a sentence with “now, I know” and loves to do battle with the nefarious “some who will.” But his genuine good humor, his bassoon-and-gravel voice, and a trust quotient that equals that of Walter Cronkite help him over those humps.

In a response to Frank’s paper (published in tandem with it), Mark Lawrence McPhail of Miami University warns of the downside of the Obama vision, which he regards as, in the 1994 words of Stephen L. Carter, one that “almost nobody really believes in but almost everybody desperately wants to.”

McPhail rails against “Obama’s ‘audacious hope,’ ”  which he considers “at best naïve, and at worst opportunistic.” Skipping the much-needed national conversation about race in favor of Obamaism in the sky won’t bring peace, and it won’t bring justice, McPhail believes.

Obama’s grand rhetoric did, however, win him 90 percent of the black vote and 52 percent of the white vote in the Virginia primary this week. Voters might not know what he said, but they have a good idea of what he means.


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