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It’s fair to say that when it comes to politics, there are few things Americans agree on. That said, there is one thing that’s not debatable: Barack Obama can deliver one hell of a campaign speech.
Even those who don’t agree with his policies can recall the first time they heard Obama, the candidate, thunder away to a crowd of adoring listeners. For many, the first time they heard Obama was his call for hope and unity at the 2004 Democratic National Convention; for others, it was the first time they heard his now-famous mantra, “Yes, we can”—with its roots in Cesar Chavez’s 1972 “Sí, se puede” campaign—on the evening of the New Hampshire primary. There are few politicians in American history who have used the stage more effectively.
You may have a different view of Obama the president and of his rhetoric in the White House. You may not agree with his policies, or you may believe, like some, that he has overused the presidential podium— or that his deeds have fallen short of his words. You may believe that his signature promises of change and political unity have given way to traditional stagnation and partisanship.
We will leave it to history, and to another author, to judge his presidency, because one thing is clear: the rules of governing are much different than those of campaigning.
Presidents have different agendas from candidates. Candidates must convince the public to vote for them, and the press to adore them; a candidate’s agenda is not to convince the Congress or the special interests to pass legislation. They are firing up a crowd at a rally of screaming supporters, not delivering a sober speech from the Oval Office on an impending war.
Presidents, on the other hand, have to be much more careful with their rhetoric; a single word can impact financial markets and foreign affairs. They have to push their budget policies day in and day out, even if it’s tedious and the public is bored stiff. As Peter Baker wrote in the New York Times, “Speechmaking as a president often presents a sharper challenge than it does on the campaign trail. The audience is different, the desired goals are different, the platform is different . . . and pushing policies requires more explanation than inspiration.”
This book covers a period of time that is already inscribed in the annals of politics: the rise and rhetoric of Barack Obama from state senator to president of the United States. It uses eighteen of Obama’s most important political speeches to tell the story of his remarkable ascent and his unprecedented use of the podium to win over a strong majority of the American public. As you will see, it’s not just about the words themselves, but the stories behind them—why they were chosen, how they were shaped, and their impact on the race.
The narrative draws on several sources: first-hand accounts from Obama’s speechwriters, analysis from journalists and others who covered the presidential campaign, and insights from our own experience in presidential politics, policymaking, and speechwriting.
You will meet the five speechwriters who helped Obama craft and communicate the “change” message he embodied and get a behind-thescenes view of their fast-paced world of swigging Red Bull and pulling all-nighter writing sessions. What will be clear throughout the book is that Barack Obama and his writers understood the impact his words could have on the race and on his ultimate success.
The title itself, Power in Words, comes from Barack Obama’s presidential announcement speech in February 2007 in Springfield, Illinois, when he said, “The life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible. He tells us that there is power in words.” Obama uttered those words only a few feet from where his political hero, Abraham Lincoln, a former Illinois state legislator and trial lawyer, declared his aspirations to the highest office in the land.
“Power in words” is not a direct quote from Lincoln. Obama was paraphrasing Lincoln, who understood that words mattered; he was fastidious about the language he used to communicate with the country.
Lincoln understood the power of words like few of his contemporaries— he knew that his rhetoric was one of the most powerful tools of persuasion he possessed. He was not particularly verbose: it was about the quality, not quantity, of his words. There was a purpose, a thoughtfulness behind every word he delivered, and history has judged his rhetoric kindly.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was only 278 words, but it is viewed as a singular moment in repairing the disjointed union. We all remember the opening: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” His celebrated Emancipation Proclamation was only 696 words; it took less than five minutes to deliver. In fact, the entire speech fits on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial. Could you imagine that happening today?
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address was only 703 words in length and 505 of those were one-syllable words. In advance of the speech, the Associated Press reported that it would be “brief—not exceeding, probably a column in length.” They were about right.
Our sixteenth president spent days writing, rewriting, and finetuning with the draft on foolscap, a type of paper that was thirteen by seventeen inches long; according to biographer Ronald White, Lincoln kept it in a drawer near him because “when he knew he was to present an important speech, he toiled far ahead.” He usually wrote his speeches “first with pencil on stiff sheets of white pasteboard or boxboard. . . . He laid the sheets . . . on his knee. He crossed out words and edited until the text was ready to copy as the final version of the speech to be delivered.”
Lincoln weighed carefully every word of his Second Inaugural, which was ultimately delivered on March 4, 1865, with the country still mired down in the Civil War. He understood that it would take a remarkable public campaign to convince the country to continue the bloodiest war in history, against their fellow citizens, to outlaw slavery.
Obama, too, recognized the impact he had on the stump. When he spoke about hope or change, or when he was forced to address himself to the race issue, the American people listened intently. He knew he had to choose his words wisely and that he could persuade, and dissuade, in an instant.
According to White, Lincoln was mocked early in his presidency for primarily to be heard. He crafted his speeches as much for the ear as for the eye” and, as noted, was careful with his diction. According to Lincoln, “In my present position . . . every word is so closely noted that it will not do to make trivial ones. I have kept silent for the reason I supposed it was particularly proper that I should do so.” Jeffrey K. Tulis explains in The Rhetorical Presidency, “Lincoln indicates that ‘silence’ will enhance the persuasive power of those speeches that he does deliver.”
Obama was not the first presidential candidate to learn from Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase “bully pulpit” because he believed that he could use the presidential podium and the direct communication with the American public it provided to “bully” Congress into enacting his agenda. Franklin Roosevelt likewise was a master communicator who seized the radio airwaves, then a brand-new medium, to allay the nation’s fears during the Great Depression and sell his ambitious New Deal program. John Kennedy used the stump and a new political tool, television, to help win the presidency and the hearts of millions of Americans. Decades later, Ronald Reagan earned the moniker the Great Communicator for his masterful use of the public stage, using it to unify the country behind his agenda. Bill Clinton took a page out of the Reagan playbook as the Great Empathizer; few politicians felt more comfortable, and were more popular, on the world stage.
Thus, compared to his successors, Lincoln hardly ever used the bully pulpit to go over the heads of Congress and address the American people directly. In the eighteenth century, it wasn’t customary for presidents to speak directly and with frequency to the American people. Tulis reported that our earliest presidents spent most of their time working behind closed doors with Congress and their cabinets. Partly this was an issue of logistics. Even if presidents had wanted to reach the masses, the tools required to do so didn’t exist; there were no twenty-four-hour cable news stations, satellite radio stations, Internet news and gossip Web sites, or armies of citizen-journalist bloggers such as those that patrol the Web today. So instead, politicians targeted their communication to the legislators and to a small, elite population who had regular access to newspapers.