Thursday, June 12, 2008

"We've been here before": How Obama frames our history

Obama is blessed with a deep resonant voice and fluent delivery. Luck of the draw, and part -- but only part -- of his incantatory appeal. Why do his speeches stir so many so deeply -- even people who resist, who ask themselves where's the beef or remind themselves that they're opposed to his policies?

When Obama speaks off the cuff, he pauses and stammers and audibly thinks his way through. In his speeches, there's tremendous fluency, but the intonation still follows that think-it-through rhythm. Long pauses spring rolling clauses; short "on the one hand" setups march slowly uphill toward long "on the other hand" torrents.

Many have complained that Obama's speeches are short on substance. If "substance" means concrete policy proposals, this is sometimes true and sometimes not. Often his laundry lists are as long as Hillary's. But the speeches are always conceptually complex; they cast the present in a three-phase historical perspective (four, if you count the future). In reverse order, these phases are: the disastrous course of the Bush years; the (brief, barely suggested) era in which Republicans were 'the party of ideas,' several of which he acknowledges to have a legitimate foundation (deregulation, free trade); and the longer American tradition of promoting fairness, commonwealth, equality and opportunity. The call for change always harks back to this longer tradition; the call to reverse course (turned left hard) is softened by acknowledgment of a few conservative precepts. It's this historical and ethical frame that makes Obama's 'change' feel conservative -- a return to what Obama called, in his March 18 speech on race, the Constitution's promise of "a union that could be and should be perfected over time."

This post was supposed to be about speech rhythms, not content. But the two can't be separated. Obama's speeches are symphonic; their most forceful passages are freighted with this historical orchestration. Many of his speeches or long speech segments follow a common trajectory. The sequence may vary a bit, but here are some recurring parts:
  • Pre-emptive qualifier of the coming thesis -- "the other side has a point" or large historical forces are at least partly responsible for our problems.
  • But -- various policy errors have put us in a hole.
  • We've been here before -- in the past, America has faced similar problems or corrected similar errors.
  • Let's get back -- our history dictates that we have to renew a commitment to fairness, shared prosperity, opportunity, innovation. We have to follow this (liberal) course in order to restore these core American values
  • That's why -- when I'm President, I'll/we'll do x,y,z.
A few examples:

Pre-emptive qualifier:
  • I understand that the challenges facing our economy didn't start the day Geroge Bush took office and they won't end the day he leaves (Raleigh, NC, June 9).
  • The truth is, trade is here to stay. We live in a global economy. For America's future to be as bright as our past, we have to compete. We have to win (Pittsburgh, PA, April 14).
  • Let me be clear: the American economy does not stand still, and neither should the rules that govern it (New York, March 27)
  • We did not arrive at the doorstep of our current economic criss by some accident of history...It was the logical conclusion of a tired and misguided philosphy that has dominated Washington for far too long (Raleigh, June 9).
  • For America to win, American workers have to win, too. If CEO pay keeps rising, while the standard of living for their workers continues to decline, that's not a win for America (Pittsburgh, April 14).
  • Unfortunately, instead of establishing a 21st century regulatory framework, we simply dismantled the old one -- aided by a legal but corrupt bargain in which campaign money all too often shaped policy and watered down oversight (New York March 27).
We've been here before/Let's get back:
  • But I also know that this nation has faced such fundamental change before, and each time we've kept our economy strong and competitive by making the decision to expand opportunity outward; to grow our middle class; to invest in innovation, and most importantly, to invest in the education and well-being of our workers (Raleigh).
  • Back in the 1950s, Americans were put to work building the Interstate Highway system and that helped expand the middle class in this country. We need to show the same kind of leadership today. That's why I've called for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will invest $60 billion over ten years and generate millions of new jobs (Pittsburgh).
  • But if we unite this country around a common purpose, if we act on the responsibilities that we have to each other and to our country, then we can launch a new era of opportunity and prosperity. I know we can do this because Americans have done this before. Time and again, we've recognized that common stake that we have in each other's success. That's how people as different as Hamilton and Jefferson came together to launch the world's greatest experiment in democracy. That's why our economy hasn't just been the world's greatest wealth creator – it's bound America together, it's created jobs, and it's made the dream of opportunity a reality for generations of Americans (New York).
That's why:
  • But since then hundreds of thousands more people have lost their jobs, and so we must do more. That's why I've called for another round of fiscal stimulus, an immediate $50 billion to help those who've been hit hardest by this economic downturn – Americans who have lost their jobs, their homes, and are facing rising costs and cutbacks in state and local services like education and healthcare. We need to expand unemployment benefits and extend them for those who can't find another job right away – especially since the long-term unemployment rate is nearly twice as high as it was during the last recession. And we must help the millions of homeowners who are facing foreclosure through no fault of their own (Raleigh).
  • That's why I opposed NAFTA, it's why I opposed CAFTA, and it's why I said any trade agreement I would support had to contain real, enforceable standards for workers. That's why I believe the Permanent Normalized Trade agreement with China didn't do enough to ensure fairness and compliance (Pittsburgh).
  • That's why, throughout this campaign, I've put forward a series of proposals that will foster economic growth from the bottom up, and not just from the top down. That's why the last time I spoke on the economy here in New York, I talked about the need to put the policies of George W. Bush behind us – policies that have essentially said to the American people: "you are on your own"; because we need to pursue policies that once again recognize that we are in this together (New York).
Since presidencies are about action, the whole sequence in one sense serves the "that's why I'll" passages devoted to policy precepts. But there's a bit of a paradox here: Obama stands out less in what he promises to do than in his account of why specific policies are necessary -- how they serve strategic, ethical, national goals. Nonetheless, the passages promising action, whatever the policies' individual merits (and some of those outlined above are hokum) often project terrific force. And for that, the explanation may be partly grammatical.

Verb phrases can be in passive or active voice. Presidential aspirants naturally tend toward the active. "I will" is the operative phrase for those crazy enough to run. But Obama, when he gets rolling on what "I will," what "we will," what we must, what we can do, slips into hyperactive voice. His long sentences, stacked with series of parallel phrases and clauses, are crammed like a power bar with verbs. This tendency tipped toward the messianic on the night Obama clinched the nomination:
If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals. Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.
That may be over the top. But it doesn't come out of nowhere. "Yes we can" is the core of every Obama speech. Believe what you will about the ultra-optimistic view of American history in which that phrase is embedded. But embedded it is.

Related posts
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Truth and Transformation
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

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