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Is Barack Obama The First 21st Century Orator?

August 25, 2008

By former Canada’s World blogger Christopher Leo

I started out as an Obama doubter, but I began to see things differently after the “More Perfect Union” speech. After decades of observing politics, I’m immune to such slogans as “Change!” and “Yes, we can.” I’ve heard them too many times, and I’ve learned that change doesn’t come easily. But now it looks to me as if Obama may be on the cutting edge of an important change in the way leaders and followers communicate with each other in a global age.

The “More Perfect Union” speech contained two elements that I’ve never seen before, in American politics or elsewhere. The first is something that, as far as I know, hasn’t drawn commentary: The tone of the speech. It’s conversational, rather than oratorical, and yet comes across as riveting oratory. The contrast becomes clear if we compare Obama’s tone to that of the great 20th Century orators.

I heard Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and was impressed by it then, but today, though still stirring, it sounds extravagant, certainly in comparison with the sober straight talk of the Obama speech. A similar contrast can be observed if we listen today to John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech. Even Winston Churchill, surely the greatest English-speaking political orator of the 20th Century, couldn’t resist promising “broad, sunlit uplands” and holding out the threat of “the abyss of a new Dark Age”.

These were all appropriate to their times, but today, when a political speech reaches a predictable climax, followed by a crescendo of applause, we are more aware than our parents were of how staged it is, and more resistant to the emotional upsurge. Obama’s tone responds to that more jaded 21st Century sensibility, by speaking to us, rather than talking at us. He also refrains from milking the applause, responding patiently to it as an understandable interruption of his speech, appearing to encourage thought rather than emotion.

The other remarkable thing about the Obama speech is the straight talk about race. He offers frank acknowledgements of the validity of both African American and white American frustration and anger, while resisting the temptation to ride either rhetorical wave and pointing out the hard reality that mutual acknowledgement must precede reconciliation.

This is a remarkable contrast with the slavish adherence to polls, and the spin-doctoring, that I suspect we are all thoroughly tired of. If Obama can talk the way he did in Philadelphia and still get elected, it will be a remarkable achievement. It doesn’t guarantee a successful presidency, but it does suggest to me that he brings something new to 21st Century politics, something Canadian politicians would do well to think about.

Christopher Leo

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. newschaser permalink
    January 29, 2010 9:41 am

    I would disagree. Obama is actually an average orator, because he does not do well in impromptu modes, especially hostile ones. He is a controlled speaker, following very closely to the cues and movement of teleprompters and prompters. In this area he is above average. However, as an impromptu speaker he is very flawed. He will stumble (examine his speech in Massachusetts for the defeated Coakley on the Sunday before the election), but more disappointing is that he allows his true emotions to slip out into the public arena. He has a lot of anger… he always has had a lot of anger since the time he was in Illnois.

    The language of provocation, of stirring up a crowd, is not eloquent and has the appearance of straight talk. I might agree with you he was giving straight talk if Mr. Obama had his facts straight, but there were many instances in the State of the Union where he was either misinformed or lying. The most egregious was the comment to the Supreme Court Justices attending out of political goodwill (they are not required). Mr. Obama’s comment about foreign companies affecting campaigns is not true, and to hammer the High Court while in joint session is as rude as the congressional gentleman last year who said “You lie” as Mr. Obama spoke about his health care overhaul. Clearly, we have a right to disagree, but a few forums are considered in bad taste–the joint session is one of them. If you need a reliable source of attribution to back that claim that Mr. Obama’s facts are wrong over the High Court decision… look at today’s Wall Street Journal.

    I am a public speaker, and a communications professional. I do analyze styles and substance of a messenger. Mr. Obama’s speech was weak on both counts. Admittedly, he was bellicose, but that was the wrong tact to take in my view. He has done better speeches, the State of the Union a few nights ago was hardly one of them.

    Thank you.

  2. Dave J. permalink
    June 24, 2009 7:48 am

    Obama?!?! You’ve GOT to be kidding!
    He’s TOTALLY LOST w/o a teleprompter. Visited 57 states? The Austrian language? If this were W. it’d be front-page news. The media is in bed with this guy, in every sense of the word.

  3. Scott Y permalink
    August 30, 2008 6:33 am

    Although its worthy of another blog post from one of you blogger-types, I would also like to comment on how will the choice of Sarah Palin as the McCain VP nominee? The initial reaction that I get, as a British Columbian, is how the selection of an Alaskan governor will impact my province.

    All of a sudden, we have the governor of a state that shares the longest single-state border with Canada on the national ticket for the incumbent party. Although there are questions regarding her qualifications and fitness for the office, there are also key issues that concern Canada regarding a McCain-Palin ticket. To refresh your memories, McCain was the one who spoke earlier this year in Ottawa on the importance of NAFTA, and now his running mate, Governor Palin will bring a whole new dimension to the race.

    Governor Palin supports Arctic drilling (McCain supports offshore drilling), which is ironic, given the current tour of the Arctic our PM is doing right now (Diefen-breaker anyone?). Palin supports an oil pipeline to the bottom 48 states from
    Alaska, which, by definition must transverse Alberta, BC and the Yukon, or some combination of the three. All of a sudden, there is a whole sweep of Canada-related issues that could emerge in the US election, particularly on the Republican side. With the looming (and virtually inevitable) threat of a Canadian election before the US election, I am really curious as to the possible impact of the Palin selection, if any?

  4. August 29, 2008 3:05 pm

    Your assessment is correct. Obama isn’t post-partisan. The “post-partisan” turn in his rhetoric is an appeal for less divisive bickering about small issues, and more willingness to find common ground to deal with big issues. There’s no such thing as a non-partisan politician, and, in portraying himself as post-partisan, Obama isn’t being altogether truthful. The realities of politics are such that, even the finest of leaders must often be less than entirely truthful.

    What’s refreshingly truthful about Obama is that he’s not afraid to talk frankly about even the most difficult issues. In his speech last night, he spoke frankly about gun control, gay rights and abortion. These are the sorts of issues that, in the United States, the usual poll-reading, spin-doctoring politician is unlikely to address truthfully.

  5. Scott Y permalink
    August 29, 2008 2:55 am

    For the record, I think Obama will be better for America (and the world) than a McCain presidency any day, but is it really a question of the devil we want rather than the devil we dread? But as I’m sitting here and watching Obama weave a spell over a crowd that nears 100 000 in his acceptance speech in Denver at the Democratic National Convention a couple of immediate thoughts come to mind.

    I’d like to answer your original question Christopher. There is no doubt in my mind that Obama is the First 21st Century Orator. He has an unrivaled ability to deliver a speech that will pull its audience out of their seats and standing in line at the polls.

    But my concern is that as Obama preaches post-partisan politics, much of his acceptance speech attacks John McCain in a blatantly partisan and parochial fashion. Throughout this speech, he has repeatedly slammed the Bush-McCain alliance divisively and decisively. Obama preaches post-partisan politics but practices them with astute adroitness. He brings up race (his dollar-bill-lookalike comment) and then accuses McCain of pulling the race card. What type of forewarning is that suggest for an Obama presidency?

  6. August 27, 2008 9:12 pm

    Even if Obama is elected – which is far from a sure thing – the realities of American politics will prevent his presidency from being as exciting as his speeches are.

    But more open communication, and communication that’s less insulting to the intelligence of the public, is an achievement in itself, and a little nudge forward for democracy. I’ve said for years that the first candidate that has the guts to ignore the spin doctors and start telling something a little closer to the truth will gain a lot of support, and I guess Obama has already proven that to be true.

  7. August 27, 2008 4:59 pm

    I am inclined to agree with your assessment regarding the silver-tongued delivery of Barack. His frank and pointed remarks, about a variety of topics presented over the course of his campaign, has certainly been refreshing. That said, the ‘hope’ for me is that his speeches contain a little more sustenance, beginning when he addresses the convention this evening, and in the coming months.

    Thought you might enjoy this editorial cartoon of our illustrious presidential leadership as America enters the 21st Century (compliments of Cafe Press)…

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