Saturday, June 28, 2008

Raise High the Nation? Obama's Speech at the Democratic Convention

I've been anticipating the candidates' speeches at this summer's nominating conventions for some time.

The acceptance speeches - with the exception of perhaps the October presidential debates - are the most important campaign events in the race for the White House. The speeches are shared national experiences. They allow people who've barely followed politics since the end of the primaries to hear the standard-bearers of both parties make the case to the American people as to why they're qualified to lead the nation.


Barack Obama's certainly got high expectatations heading into his address, given that much of his fame this year is based in his oratorical power - indeed, he's often compared to Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, and the one most gifted in his use of language to rouse the soul of a nation.

It turns out that New York Magazine's got an interesting piece on Obama forthcoming speech to the Democrats in August, "
Raise High the Rafters."

The piece is a bit fawning, and clearly adopts a pro-Democratic perspective, but the author makes some perceptive observations:

Compared with his rivals, Obama’s skill-set seems almost otherworldly. His phrases line up regularly in striking and meaningful patterns; his cliché ratio is, for a politician, admirably low; his stresses and pauses seem dictated less by the usual metronome of generic political speech than by the actual structures of meaning behind his words. He tolerates complexity to such an extent that he’s sometimes criticized as “professorial,” which allows him to get away with inspirational catchphrases that would sound like platitudes coming from anyone else. His naïve-sounding calls for change are persuasive largely because he’s already managed to improve one of our most intractable political problems: the decades-old, increasingly virulent plague of terrible speechifying. The signature project of his candidacy—before health care or housing or Iraq—seems to be the reuniting of presidential discourse with actual, visible thought. It is not a trivial achievement.
Here's another good passage:

More than any other recent politician, Obama is a literary phenomenon. Like America itself, he’s addicted to origin myths. He’s built his political success on the back of compulsive autobiography, the brilliant telling and retelling, and then retelling some more, of his divinely unorthodox life story: the great sweeping legend of Obamerica, the fusion of man and nation, whose manifest destiny extends all the way to the White House. It’s significant that he used his first appearance in the national spotlight, the keynote speech at Kerry’s DNC, to meta-sketch the inspirational origin of that very keynote speech: “Let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely,” he said, and then unleashed, in about 60 seconds, a pithy intergenerational family saga spanning three continents and all the major events of mid-twentieth-century America (Depression, Pearl Harbor, postwar boom)—complete with such unlikely details as goat herding, a tin-roof shack, oil rigs, and Patton’s army marching across Europe. It was like a brilliant movie trailer designed to promote the incalculably awesome feature attraction of his future political career. To deny his candidacy, after that, would be to deny a very powerful narrative logic—the goats, the tin-roof shack, Patton, all of it. Every politician tries to tell stories, of course, to harness the emotional momentum of narrative in the service of an agenda. But few do so as naturally as Obama. All serious candidates have a maniacal ambition—in retrospect, Hillary’s looked unflattering because she didn’t nest it quite deeply enough in a persuasive narrative logic; Barack’s is so embedded in an attractive story that we hardly even notice it.
So what does Obama need to do at the Democratic convention?

He needs to dial back the stratospheric oratory and connect with the middle American electorate. This, I would argue, is going to be more challenging that some might think, including the author of
this piece.

Contrary to what many on the left may believe,
Obama's speech at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center - where he threw his grandma under the bus - wasn't spectacular, and it certainly wasn't Lincolnesque.

The Philadelphia address, if anything, showed some moxie in addressing the nation's original sin, but it was also a perfect example of Obama's tendency to be, well,
all about Obama.

In Denver, Obama needs to go beyond the self-centered lofty language, the weighted pauses, and the soothing baritone delivery - he needs to genuinely move a nation. He must address issues of real importance - not only the obvious pressing issues like the economy and Iraq, but politically dangerous policies, like the urban crisis of crime and poverty.

Can he do this? Can Obama speak out to a nation perhaps poised for a political realigment? Can he satisfy not just the hardline netroots activists of the Demcratic Party's radical base, but also the swing voters in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, who are not easily motivated toward guilt-driven minority electoral support? Can Obama make clear that his patriotism's not just a snooty love of his successes, but of a genuine pride in nation that harks to the most traditional notions of conservative nationalism?

These are some of the challenges that await Obama later this summer. All eyes will be watching.