Barack Obama will long stand out among contemporary presidents for the strength of his speeches, especially since he was immediately succeeded by someone with little capacity for matching them.
By Seth Masket
Barack Obama speaks at an event at Gilley’s Club in Dallas, Texas, on March 12th, 2016. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
I recently took part in a screening event for a new Smithsonian documentary on Barack Obama’s legacy as a public speaker. The film, entitled The Obama Years: The Power of Words, examines the creation and delivery of six of Obama’s most iconic speeches* and attempts to assess his impact both as a writer and an orator. Rather than review the film, I’d like to use this moment to consider the importance of speechmaking to Obama’s legacy and to the presidency in general.
Obama’s relationship to political speeches is somewhat unusual for an American president. Possibly more than any other president, Obama’s candidacy was founded on a speech — specifically, his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Speeches have obviously been important to many other presidents in their rise to prominence. Ronald Reagan, for example, became a conservative hero with his 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech. But Reagan was already a household name at that point, and he’d serve two terms as California’s governor before running for president. By contrast, very few people outside of Illinois had heard of Obama before the 2004 convention, and many Democratic activists were suddenly considering him as a presidential candidate before he even left the podium.
But is he an effective speaker? There are a few ways to approach that questions. In terms of oratory, he seems very effective. That is, his speeches are well-crafted, compelling, and poetic. He uses evidence, emotion, and other forms of persuasion to back a central thesis. He has a real knack for connecting personal stories with the long sweep of history and conveying a profoundly optimistic worldview. Think, for example, of the story of 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper he told during his 2008 victory night speech. He described the dramatic social and technological changes she’d seen during her life, punctuating each with a “yes we can,” echoed responsively by the crowd. “And this year,” he concluded, “in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.”
Were his speeches politically effective? That’s another issue altogether. As John Sides has noted, it’s often difficult to find evidence that presidential speeches actually change anyone’s minds. Systematic studies of State of the Union Addresses find them to have little impact on public opinion, and they’re sometimes more likely to polarize the opinions of the public and members of Congress than to move them in one direction. Obama’s exhortations on health-care reform didn’t seem to move many people in his direction, and indeed may have increased Republicans’ intransigence toward his proposals. Obama’s relatively tepid moves on same-sex marriage in his first term could be seen as a way to allow the public to continue to become more accepting of it, rather than inviting conservative pushback by speaking out on it.
But these aren’t the only measures of a speech’s effectiveness. Far less tangibly, how many volunteers were mobilized to get out the vote because of Obama’s speeches? How many people are running for office now because they were inspired by Obama’s words? How many schoolchildren feel more patriotic when they learn those phrases in class? Talk to almost any Democratic activist in her 60s or 70s, and she’ll tell you that she was inspired by John F. Kennedy’s call to service. Many Republicans active in politics today can quote some of Reagan’s speeches from memory. That’s not something we can easily measure, but it can be profoundly important in the long run.
Obama will long stand out among contemporary presidents for his oratory, especially since he was immediately succeeded by someone with little capacity for it. Donald Trump seems to relish speaking to large crowds and riling them up, but his speeches are mainly a disorganized array of put-downs; there is no poetry present at all. And when he does utter a crafted speech (as at the Republican National Convention or his inauguration), it usually has a dour, fearful tone, with few inspiring words to quote. George W. Bush was capable of delivering a strong speech with practice, even if his off-the-cuff comments could prove error prone. Bill Clinton’s style could be disorganized but engaging and detail-oriented. George H.W. Bush was not much of a speaker. Only Reagan seems on par with Obama for an ability to connect key issues with compelling narratives and deliver it with a sunny disposition.
It will be interesting to see how the future treats Obama’s oratory — whether his words, like Abraham Lincoln’s, will someday adorn buildings, classrooms, and monuments, or whether they’ll largely remain on paper in archives. But their timeless quality, even while spoken during a very distinct time in our nation’s history, suggests they will live on to inspire others.
*The six speeches featured in the film are:
- The 2004 DNC keynote address.
- The 2008 DNC nomination acceptance speech.
- The 2008 “More Perfect Union” speech addressing race, religion, and Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
- Obama’s remarks following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
- The 2015 Selma speech on the 50th anniversary of that civil rights march.
- The 2015 eulogy for Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney after the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting.