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Obama Speech Sends Rhetoricians Back to the Future

Candidate's victory speech at the conclusion of the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucus has political scientists comparing it to ones delivered by icons of oratory from years past.
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A sense of inclusiveness. A spirit of optimism. An assertion that, together, we can do great things. The most successful American politicians from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan have convincingly conveyed that combination of faith, hope and confidence. With his speech

Thursday night in Iowa, Barack Obama may have joined that elite group of compelling communicators.

Whereas most politicians present themselves as the answer to our problems, the Illinois senator spoke of common concerns and shared wisdom. It’s an approach that resonates deep in the American psyche, and one admired by two experts on political rhetoric.

“There was a kind of intimacy between the speaker and the audience,” said Wayne Fields, director of American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “That’s the core of small-d democratic politics — that connection.

“Hillary Clinton’s message was, ‘It’s my experience that qualifies me to be your leader. I know what you need and what you want.’ As a trial lawyer, (John) Edwards’ appeal is that of a powerful advocate — but again, he’s speaking for us, over us, around us. Whereas Obama seems to be speaking with us and through us.”

“I was struck by how he set it up (that his victory in the Democratic caucuses) was bigger than himself,” said Babak Elahi, an associate professor in the English department of the Rochester Institute of Technology. “That was a kind of genius.”

That essential message — that the struggle against adversity is something we all must wage together — was perhaps most effectively conveyed by FDR. (He was a master at conveying intimacy, particularly in his famous fireside chats, where he spoke to the nation via the radio.)

While Fields acknowledges that historical precedent, Obama’s speech primarily reminded him of the rhetoric of the early 1960s. “There were elements of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy in it,” he said. “It’s a style that has been largely missing from politics in recent years. We’re hearing the call to a new generation that Kennedy made, and the call to a kind of moral activism that King was making.”

Elahi also heard echoes of King, particularly in the “repetitive, almost rhythmic appeal” of the speech’s opening lines (“They said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high.”). But he added that Obama also referenced aspects of America’s self-image that pre-date the civil rights struggle.

“He talked about harnessing the energy of farmers and scientists to deal with our reliance on foreign oil,” Elahi noted. “To me, that’s tapping into the agrarian ideal that goes back to Jefferson — as well as the idea of Yankee ingenuity.”

So, with Obama’s success, will other presidential candidates pick up on these all-American themes? “As much as they can,” Fields said. “But in a way, it’s in his nature, but not in theirs.

“I respect Joe Biden (who dropped out following his defeat in Iowa), but there’s an aloofness, a distance to him that I don’t think can be overcome. (Rudolph) Giuliani, it seems to me, has nothing but 9/11. (Mike) Huckabee has been pushing this as far as he can, but the fundamentalist bent of his core audience and his core message is always, in some subtle ways, undermining (the idea of inclusiveness).”

And Fields thinks the return of inclusiveness to the political landscape is a very welcome thing.

“The assumption that there is a fundamental division between people who think and people who work is just bullshit,” he said. “But it’s highly important to the aristocratic few who want to govern the many. And, in a way, it’s also important to a certain brand of populism. In both cases, the underlying assumption is, ‘Somebody else needs to think for us.’”

Fields senses “a contempt for democracy” in that mindset.

“Part of what sets Obama apart is that he is constantly affirming the democratic process,” he said. “That is part of the reason he seems to some to be innocent or naïve. He embraces the ability of the citizenry in a democratic society to influence its own future.”

In doing so, “Obama is firing up a constituency that is relatively new to the system, and indirectly reaching out to a consistency that has grown more jaded,” Fields added. “He is not just speaking about change — he is embodying it."