Is Barack Obama The First 21st Century Orator?
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.