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11 December 2008

The man of words

Barack Obama is certain to be remembered as one of the great political speakers of our time. But the

By Dominic Sandbrook

The new tuxedo has been ordered, the balls are on schedule, and all that Barack Obama needs now is the speech. The largest crowd for a presidential inauguration in history is expected to descend on Washington on 20 January for the new president’s swearing-in, and already the Georgetown gossips are speculating about his inaugural address.

Never perhaps has the bar been set higher, because, as his Republican opponents put it, Obama is above all a “person of words”. His rise to power began with words, when he addressed the Democratic National Convention as a mere senatorial aspirant four years ago, and his extraordinary facility with the spoken word became one of the most striking features of his long march to the presidency. After the election, the New Yorker literary critic James Wood even published a close reading of his victory speech in Chicago, tracing the allusions to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, and exploring his use of history, his fondness for repetition, and the “plain but musical” flow of his language.

A vague reliance on hope and history will not impress viewers terrified they are going to lose their jobs

Although the tradition of high-flown political oratory has rather withered in Britain since the great days of Gladstone and Churchill, American audiences expect more from their leaders. While they had John F Kennedy summoning a generation to greatness, we had Harold Wilson talking about the pound in your pocket. And no British speaker of the past three decades, not even the faux-populist Tony Blair, comes close to matching Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, with their mastery of the misty eye and the trembling lip, their vocabulary of soaring skies and open horizons, their love of the telling anecdote and the rousing climax.

None of these men, of course, wrote his speeches entirely unassisted. Kennedy’s inaugural address was the work of his courtier Ted Sorensen. Reagan’s, a classic example of American patriotic populism, was written by Ken Khachigian, a veteran of the Nixon administration. And Obama, too, has not just a speechwriter but an entire team of wordsmiths, all throwing out ideas as though drafting an episode of a sitcom – although his chief writer, 27-year-old Jon Favreau, loyally claims that telling Obama what to say is about as useful as telling the baseball legend Ted Williams how to hit a home run.

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It is not difficult to detect the source of Obama’s rhetorical power. As a communicator, he has certain natural advantages – height, good looks, a deep voice, a preternatural sense of calm and control, a nice slow pace and ear for rhythm – but he also draws on the almost musical traditions of religious preachers. And, like his hero Martin Luther King, to whose speeches he often alludes, he allows his voice to rise and fall with the cadences and repetitions of his text, so that the speech becomes a song, playing with our expectations and seducing the ear.

The odd thing about the inaugural address, though, is that Obama has already given it hundreds of times. Inaugural addresses inevitably emphasise new hopes and unconquered horizons, historical roots and optimistic dreams – which is exactly what Obama has been doing since his national debut. It would be child’s play for him to stand up and, in his rich, rousing voice, give us more of the same.

However, it would also be a bit of a disappointment. When you have heard a few inaugural addresses, they start to blur into one gigantic patriotic cliché, rather as if you were drowning in a sea of syrup. On the page, they generally read very poorly – and in truth, Obama’s speeches are a lot less impressive as black type on white paper than as music floating through the winter air. It would be a shame if the most important speech of his life were to end up as just another puddle of sludge.

This only emphasises the great challenge for Obama the orator. Audiences will tolerate bland pieties about the American dream from presidential candidates, but they expect something rather different from their chief executive. Taking office against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis for 80 years, Obama will almost certainly bring more bad news than good during his time in office. If, in a few months, he has to announce another huge government bailout, or appeal for calm as the financial system implodes further, he will have to do a lot better than “Yes we can”.

The fascinating thing, therefore – and the true test of Obama’s rhetorical talents – will be to see how he adjusts to the new challenge of holding and wielding power. The soaring rhythms of the religious tradition are not well suited to televised fireside chats, and a vague reliance on hope and history will not impress viewers terrified they are going to lose their jobs. And while making great speeches in opposition to George W Bush and John McCain is one thing, making great speeches while announcing terrible economic news is quite another.

Nobody should doubt that Obama has the potential to become one of the finest political speakers of modern times. But only in four years’ time will we know for sure whether he deserves to be ranked beside Lincoln and King, men of words whose greatest triumphs came amid the most dreadful adversity.

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