Thursday, December 06, 2012

Obama on the power of words

One moment in the formation of Obama's habit of mind that David Maraniss spotlights in his magisterial biography occured in high school:
Barry was not the most talkative student in her class, [English teacher Barbara Czurles-Nelson] recalled. He would sit near the back of the room, relaxed, waiting for his opening in the conversation. One day they were dealing with a philosophical question about what people should most fear. The answers included loneliness, death, hell, and war. Then Barry straightened up. That was the sign that he was ready to participate, Nelson thought, when he was sure to sharpen the class discussion.  “Words,” he said. “Words are the power to be feared most.… Whether directed personally or internationally, words can be weapons of destruction” (pp. 299-300, Kindle Edition).

Though the emphasis is on danger, the resemblance is still striking to the moment that first fully impressed on me Obama's potential to be the transformative president he said he wanted to be, when he again spoke of the power of words. It was in a debate with Hillary, between  the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, Jan. 5, 2008:

Look, I think it's easier to be cynical and just say, "You know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change." But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes -- not incremental changes, not small changes.

I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done.

And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
Obama's ability thus to move masses with words appeared to desert him for extended periods in his first term. I believe that, ultimately, that will prove to have been a function of reception: no one hears you when unemployment is in double digits, and reception improves at about the rate of economic improvement. I think that this election, however, validated his core messages, which are built to sink in  long-term: that economic policy needs to be focused on long-term investment in human capital; that the country needs a post-Reagan/post-Bush course correction to restore a commitment to shared prosperity; that the country has always, cyclically, renewed that commitment, with each renewal widening the circle of inclusion; and that ultimately, compromise and pragmatism are pillars of effective policy (he may not have "changed Washington" in his first term, but large majorities credit him with more willingness to negotiate in good faith than the Republicans). 

I think, too, that in recent months Obama has rebalanced his conception of the power inherent in words. He has shifted his emphasis to the audience, whom he now invites to the primary agents of change. This is less thrilling, in a way. But I don't think it's a cynical shift, and I don't think it will ultimately prove ineffective. I took a look at what Obama seems to think he's doing, how he now understands political power and the power of words, here.

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