What Made Obama's Speech Great
We are on the cusp of a new politics in America. It should be dated from March 18, 2008, the date of Barack Obama's landmark speech "A More Perfect Union." The usual pundits have looked mainly at the speech's surface theme: race. They weren't wrong. It was indeed the most important statement about race in recent history.
But it was much more. It was a general call to a new politics and an outline for what it needs to be. Just as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was about much more than the war dead on that battlefield, so Obama's speech -- widely hailed as in the same ballpark as Lincoln's -- went beyond race to the nature of America, its ideals and its future.
To get an appreciation for the greatness of Obama's speech, we have to start with its context: What were the problems Obama faced in writing it, and what were the constraints on him?
He was under severe political attack, both from Republican conservatives and from the Clinton wing of his own party. Here's what he was facing:
- Racial divisions and identity politics had been injected into the campaign by his opponents and the media. The effect was to position him, as an African-American, as being opposed to the interests of whites and Hispanics.
- An attack on his and his wife's patriotism.
- A claim that he was really a Muslim.
- A repeatedly shown film clip of his long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who had married him and his wife and baptized his daughters, making embarrassing remarks taken as anti-American and anti-Semitic.
- One of the hallmarks of his campaign has been good judgment on foreign policy; his opponents claimed that his connection to Wright had shown bad judgment.
- Another hallmark of his campaign has been authenticity, telling the truth. Two of his advisors had made remarks -- one on NAFTA and one on Iraq -- that opponents had twisted to make it seem that he was lying. He had to establish himself as truthful.
- Another hallmark of his campaign has been values. His opponents had claimed that his values were unknown and that the public didn't know who he was.
- His opponents had claimed that he could not stand up to strong opposition.
- He was in the center of an intensely divisive campaign while pressing unity as a major theme.
- His opponents had claimed that his eloquence was all talk and no action.
In addition, Sen. Obama faced certain constraints on what he could say:
Try to imagine being in this position and having to write a speech overnight. And yet he wrote not a speech, but the speech -- one of the greatest ever.
As a linguist, I am tempted to describe the surface features: the intonation, the meter, the grammatical parallelisms, the choice of words. These contribute to eloquence. I'm sure the linguistics community will jump in and do that analysis. Instead, I want to talk about the structure of ideas.
Any framing study begins with communicative framing, the context. Contextual frames carry ideas. Sen. Obama is patriotic, and he had to communicate not only the fact of his patriotism, but also the content of it. And he had to do it in a way that fit unquestionable and shared American values. Where did he give his speech kicking off his Pennsylvania campaign? Not in Scranton or Pittsburgh or Hershey, but in Philadelphia, home of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and at once home of one of America's largest African-American communities. What building was it in? Constitution Hall. How did he appear onstage? Surrounded by flags. He is tall and thin, as were the flagstaffs, which were about the same height. He was visually one with the flag, one with America. No picture of him could be taken without a flag shaped like him, without an identification of man and country.
How did he start the speech? With the first line of the Constitution: "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union ..." He called the speech "A More Perfect Union." And that's what it was about. Union: about inclusiveness not divisiveness; about responsibility for each other not just oneself; about seeing the country and world in terms of cooperation, not competition or isolation. More perfect: admitting the imperfections of being human and making a commitment to do better; distinguishing the ideals on parchment from the reality that our actions must forge. A more perfect union: looking to a better future that it is up to us to make, and that can only be done by transcending divisiveness and coming together around the ideals of our Constitution.
That is what he has meant by "hope" and "change." It is the general message. And race, though a special case, is one the hardest issues to address. And though his opponents will continue to promote and exploit racial divisiveness, race is an area where huge progress has been made and needs to be made visible. If there is to be a test of character and leadership -- a test of honesty, openness, strength, and integrity on his part, and good will and American values on the part of American citizens, race is as tough a test case as any. Not a test of Obama, but a test of America. A test of whether Americans will live American ideals. No pussyfooting. No sweeping it under the rug. This election sets a direction for the country. Will we face our problems and follow our ideals or not? Obama can hold the mirror up to us, and he can endeavor to lead the march. What he asks is whether we are ready to continue the march, "a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America."
Most of the adjectives are familiar in political speeches: just, equal, free and prosperous. What is the crucial addition, right in the middle, is "caring." A day later, Anderson Cooper asked him on CNN what he meant by patriotism. His response began with "caring about one another." The choice of words is careful. In his Martin Luther King Day speech this year, Obama spoke repeatedly of the "empathy deficit," the need to be "more caring."
Empathy, as I showed in my book Moral Politics, is at the heart of progressive politics in America. And as UCLA historian Lynn Hunt has shown in her book Inventing Human Rights: A History, the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness became self-evident by 1776 through the development of empathy. Democracy is based on empathy, on the bonds of care and responsibility that link us together and make us a nation.
It is the mark of a great speech, not just to mention its themes but to exemplify those themes. Empathy, union and common responsibility are the ideas behind the speech, as well as the ideas behind the New Politics; and as the speech shows, they are behind the idea of America itself. The speech works via empathy, via the emotional structure built into the speech and into our national ideals. The speech works because, almost line by line, it evokes those foundational ideals -- the ideals we have and feel, but that have been far too long hidden behind political cynicism, political fear, and the concern for advantage. And it is the mark of political courage to confront those monsters head on at the most critical point in a campaign for the presidency, when one could play it safe and just count delegates but instead chooses the right but difficult path.
At this point, the symbolic structure of the speech becomes easier to see.
He begins by discussing the achievement of the Declaration of Independence in uniting the states, while seeing its flaw -- the country's "original sin of slavery," part of the deal to get South Carolina to join the union. The nation is great, and still flawed -- and loved for its greatness despite its flaws.
The same is true of Reverend Wright. Reverend Wright's history symbolizes the history of his generation of African-Americans -- a bitter history of oppression by whites in an America in denial: segregation, legalized discrimination, lynchings, a brutal fight for basic civil rights. His bitterness and that of his generation is real and understandable. We can empathize with him. And we empathize even more when we learn of his positive accomplishments: service in the Marine Corps and speaking to Obama "about our obligations to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor. And he lived what he preached: "housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS." He preached empathy, he lived empathy, and we empathize with him for that.
And yet Reverend Wright's statements as shown in the TV clips were wrong. Not just incorrect, but morally wrong: divisive and harmful, raising what is wrong with America above all that is right with America. Obama condemns those statements. But he won't fall into the same mistake, raising what is wrong with the man above all that is right with the man. Obama loves and is loyal to his flawed country, just as he loves and is loyal to this flawed but fundamentally good man. Just as he loves his wonderful white grandmother who is flawed by occasional racial stereotypes. His relationship with Reverend Wright shows in Obama a positive character: love and loyalty while acknowledging the reality of flaws and not being taken in by them. It is good judgment, not bad judgment -- about Wright and about America.
But Obama is not just black; he is half white. His wife has in her veins the blood of both slaves and slave owners. Obama's empathy is not just for black America but equally for white America. He speaks of the real troubles of poor white Americans, and their real and legitimate feelings of anger and resentment. But both black anger and white resentment are counterproductive. They create divisiveness when unity is needed to overcome "the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze -- a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many." The poor -- black and white and brown -- are all victims of the real culprits, whose weapon is fear and divisiveness. Race gets in the way. It is a distraction from dealing with corporate greed.
Another culprit that stands in the way is the media, which uses race for its own ends -- as spectacle (the O.J. trial), tragedy (Katrina), and "fodder for the nightly news." Obama is courageous here. He is taking on a media that has been especially underhanded with him, helping the Right spread guilt by association by showing the Reverend Wright tape snippets over and over. For a candidate to talk straight to the media about what it is doing to harm the country is courageous, to say the least.
A bit of courage for a candidate who seeks the votes of Republicans is to point out that a serious flaw of Reverend Wright's is also a central flaw of conservatism: "the notion of self-help, or what conservatives call individual responsibility. It is central to conservative Christianity as well: whether you go to heaven or hell is a matter of individual responsibility. It is a mistake in both religion and politics.
What is called for is nothing less than what all the world's great religions demand -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect our spirit as well.
American politics and religion come together on these moral grounds: empathy and responsibility both for oneself and others.
And with all the Christian references in the speech, it is hard to imagine him as a Muslim.
Obama begins the close of his speech with a riff on how talk is action: "This time we want to talk about ..." followed by the plights of Americans, plights that arouse our empathy -- or should. Speech, Obama tells us, is action. Collective speech changes brains and minds, and when the minds of voters change, material change is possible. And if ever a speech was an act, this speech is it.
The closing portion is pure empathy -- the story of Ashley and the old black man. Ashley, a white girl, out of empathy for her struggling mother, ate mustard and relish on bread for a year to save on food money. She became a community organizer out of empathy for those in her community who were struggling. At an event she organized, she asked everyone to say why they were there. She told her story, others told theirs, and when they came to the old black man, he said simply, "I'm here because of Ashley." The empathy of an old black man for a young white woman. A moral for us all.
The true power of the speech is that it does what it says. It not only talks about empathy, it creates it.
The speech achieves its power not just through the literal and the obvious. Family metaphors abound: the nation is a family; the nation's future is its children; it's flawed past is its older citizens, scarred by past flaws. "The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids ..." The nation is a family, and we have to care for our kids.
It is a common metaphor that an institution is seen as a person, with the special case that a nation is understood in terms of its leader. In this speech, Obama becomes contemporary America: as America is of mixed race, he is of mixed race; as Americans have benefited from advances over past flaws, so he has benefited. His story is an "only in America story," an American dream story. His candidacy is only possible in America. Indeed his genes are only possible in America. How could he be anything but patriotic when he is America? And how can we, identifying with him, be anything but patriotic when we are America?
No, this is not, as the New York Times says on its website, "a speech on race." It is a speech on what America is about, on what American values are, on what patriotism is, on who the real culprits are, and on the kind of new politics needed if we are to make progress in transcending those flaws that are still very much with us.
Finally it is a speech about policy and how he would govern. When he says "This time we want to talk about ..." he is listing a policy agenda: education, healthcare, overcoming special interests, creating good jobs, saving homes, fighting corporate greed that works against the common good, creating unity, bringing the troops home from Iraq, and taking care of our veterans. As a list, this looks like Sen. Clinton's list. But there is a crucial difference.
Sen. Clinton speaks constantly of "interests." In doing so, she is doing what many other Democrats have done before her, engaging in interest group politics, where policy means finding some demographic group that has been ill-served by the market or government, and then proposing a governmental redress: a tax break here, a subsidy there, a new regulation. Obama does not speak of interests and seeks to transcend interest groups and interest group politics. That is at the heart of this speech. When we transcend interest groups, we transcend interest group politics.
And when he says, "I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents ..." he is making a foreign policy statement, that foreign policy is not just about states and national interests, but about people and the world's family.
What makes this great speech great is that it transcends its immediate occasion and addresses in its form as well as its words the most vital of issues: what America is about: who are, and are to be, as Americans; and what politics should be fundamentally about.
The media has missed this. But we must not.
The media has gone back to the horse race, reporting counts of delegates and superdelegates, campaign attacks, who endorses whom, and this week's polls. Hardly irrelevant, but not the main event.
The main event is the new politics, what has excited Americans about this election, what has brought young people out to political speeches, and what has led voters to wait for hours in the cold just to catch a glimpse of a candidate for president who has been saying what they have been waiting to hear. It is this:
The essence of America was there in its founding documents, carried out imperfectly and up to us to keep alive and work toward as best we can.
At the heart of our democracy is empathy-made-real, a political arrangement through which we care for one another, protect one another, create joint prosperity and help one another lead fulfilling lives.
America is a family and its future is our children -- to be nurtured and attuned to nature, fed and housed well, educated to their capacities, kept healthy and helped to prosper, made whole through music and the arts, and provided with institutions that bring them together in these ongoing responsibilities.
The strength of America is in its ideals and how we act them out.
Americans have come here from around the globe, with family, ethnic and cultural ties to virtually every country and with human ties to people everywhere. Our actions in the world must reflect this.
All of this is politics. Politics is essentially ethical, it is about what is right. And the nuts and bolts of determining legitimate political authority -- the fund-raising, the on-the-ground organization, the speeches, the campaign ads, the voter registration and the counting of ballots -- should reflect these values as well.
That is the politics Americans have yearned for, and though we don't have it yet and it won't be here tomorrow, it is what so many of us are working for and that we have glimpsed through this speech.
No matter who wins the Democratic nomination and the presidential election in 2008, these ideals are not going to be fully realized right away. No candidate is perfect on this score, nor could be. But this is the vision. It sets the goals that I believe most Americans seek. We can make progress toward it in hundreds of ways. But in its vision it will always be the New Politics we seek as Americans, in 2012, 2016, 2020 and beyond.