Despite a distrust of rhetoric and a preference for action over words in American culture, political speech and writing have had a profound influence on American history. For example,
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address helped redefine the country from a plural collection of states to a singular nation and elevated the importance of equality in the national consciousness. Franklin Roosevelt’s first two inaugural addresses set a domestic policy agenda that would endure for at least fifty years, while his second two greatly influenced U.S. foreign policy after World War II. Parts of William Jennings Bryan’s famous 1896 ‘‘Cross of Gold’’ speech, which inspired Democratic National Convention delegates with its oratory on behalf of populist farmers, were recycled nearly one hundred years later by an actor at the first Farm Aid concert.
Undoubtedly it is premature to lump Obama with the major historical figures above, but his emerging reputation as an orator justifies an examination of his rhetoric. The ecstatic reaction to his 2004 Democratic National Convention address, where his impact on political speeches was compared to Marlon Brando’s on acting after ‘‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’’ suggests that some day he may deserve to be on the list above.
This chapter examines Obama’s message, primarily through his speeches, but also in a few cases through his writings. Three important themes will be examined: his view of the American Dream, his calls for political reform and uplifting the tone of political debate, and his post-partisan stance. In each case, we will show how he has developed his ideas in speeches and writing and consider whether his message will resonate with voters in the future, including his 2008 presidential bid.
OBAMA’S VIEW OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
Some of the most memorable and powerful political rhetoric in American history relates to defining and interpreting the ‘‘American Dream.’’ This concept refers to the idea that the United States is a ‘‘Land of Opportunity,’’ where success depends on hard work, not one’s place in a rigid class system. In 1993, President Clinton explained it as the idea that ‘‘if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be given the chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.’’
As such, it rests on beliefs in individualism and free enterprise. Republicans and Democrats differ somewhat in their basic interpretations of the American Dream, with the former emphasizing the frontier and cowboy metaphors and the latter the immigrant experience in teeming cities. President Reagan was particularly adept at communicating the GOP version, which stresses the role of individual initiative and limited government in promoting economic growth, but also touches on communitarian themes such as volunteerism. He encapsulated the individualistic and materialistic perspective on the American Dream in a 1983 press conference, where he said, ‘‘what I want to see above all is that this country remains a country where someone can always get rich.’’
Directly challenging the ideas of classlessness and meritocracy that underpin the belief in the American Dream is usually political dynamite. Thus, few politicians take this dare, absent a national crisis such as the Great Depression. A notable exception is 1984 Democratic National Convention keynote speaker Mario Cuomo, who attacked President Reagan’s vision. He argued that the president’s emphasis on individualism and materialism led to policies that favored the rich and strong, leaving many unable to attain the American Dream. Without overstating the role of convention rhetoric on elections, Reagan’s land- slide victory in 1984 suggests that his vision of the American Dream trumped Cuomo’s critique. In 1990, Paul Wellstone won a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota challenging the ‘‘fable’’ of a classless society where individual merit determined one’s station in society. Clearly, his success while pushing this message is exceptional, however.
Allusions to the American Dream pervade Obama’s speeches, including, of course, his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address. The phrase even appears in the subtitle of his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope. Obama does not attack the idea’s mainstream, individualistic interpretation head-on. Instead, he pays homage to this view, while trying to persuade people that a commitment to the values of community and equality underlie the American Dream. In his convention speech, he noted how his father’s ‘‘hard work and perseverance’’ allowed him to study in a ‘‘magical place, America, that shone as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before.’’
Elsewhere, he has said that ‘‘if you’re willing to work hard in this country of American dreamers, the sky is the limit on what you can achieve.’’ He sometimes uses himself as an example, citing his journey from obscurity and near penury to fame between the Democratic National Conventions of 2000 and 2004. At the former, he had just lost to Bobby Rush in his bid for Congress and had his credit card initially rejected when trying to rent a car at the Los Angeles airport. At the 2004 convention, of course, he had achieved a much more exalted status. In a commencement speech at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, he concluded this tale by saying, ‘‘But of course, America is an unlikely place—a country built on defiance of the odds; on a belief in the impossible. And I remind you of this, because as you set out to live your own stories of success and achievement, it’s now your turn to help keep it this way.’’
As the quote above suggests, Obama’s vision of the American Dream transcends individualism and economic success, implying that each of us has an obligation to keep the dream alive for everyone. In his many commencement addresses, he almost always calls on graduates to look beyond wealth as a measure of the success of their lives. For example, in his 2005 address to the graduating class of Knox College, he told them, ‘‘You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after a big house, and the nice suits, and all the other things that our money culture says you can buy. But I hope you don’t. Focusing your life on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself.’’
Although he acknowledges the importance of individual initiative and capitalism in America’s success, he also argues that they are meaningless without a sense of mutual responsibility and guarantees of equal opportunity. He contends that an excessive commitment to individualism as a public philosophy undermines the ability of some to achieve the American Dream. One of his strongest statements on the limits of individualism and self-reliance as a world view came after the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, when he argued that this perspective doomed New Orleans’ poor to unnecessary suffering. ‘‘Whoever was in charge of planning and preparing for the worst-case scenario appeared to assume that every American has the capacity to load up their family in an SUV, fill it up with $100 worth of gasoline, stick some bottled water in the trunk, and use a credit card to check into a hotel.’’
More broadly, he rejects President Bush’s notion of the ‘‘ownership society’’ as excessively individualistic. In his speech to Knox College graduates, he criticized the president and other conservatives for over emphasizing the roles of individual initiative and personal freedom in nurturing the American Dream. He argued that, without its other foundations, community and equality, Americans are likely to struggle to meet the challenges of the global economy. Speaking of the threat to American living standards, he charged:
There are those who believe that there isn’t much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government—divvy it up into individual portions, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to buy their own health care, their own individual retirement plan, their own child care, education, and so forth. In Washington they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism, every man and woman for him or herself. It’s a tempting idea, because it doesn’t require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford—tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job—life isn’t fair. It lets us say to the child born into poverty—pull yourself up by your bootstraps.… But there’s a problem. It won’t work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it has been government research and investment that made the railways and the internet possible. It has been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools that has allowed us to prosper. Our economic dominance has depended on individual initiative and belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together, and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity—that has produced our unrivaled political stability.
The passage above shows how Obama connects the ideas of community and equality to the American Dream. Communitarian values provide a foundation and egalitarian beliefs insure that all can attain it.
Thus, Obama sees individualism, community, and equality as woven together in the fabric of the American Dream. Because the latter concepts have been less prominent in recent political rhetoric, however, it is worthwhile considering how Obama views them individually.
The communitarian tradition in American life competes with, and sometimes complements, the more obvious individualistic strains.
Communitarians rejects the idea of people as atomistic individuals, viewing us instead as social beings who need a sense of belonging and a shared moral framework that we find in political activity. Often non-governmental institutions such as churches or civic clubs are viewed as particularly important to fostering healthy communities. Participation in public life and deliberation about common problems help individuals mature into citizens who become aware of the mutual obligation between society and its members. Part of this awareness involves understanding the balance between rights and responsibilities and realizing that the former are rarely absolute if their exercise harms society as a whole. Admittedly there is a more negative strain of communitarianism in American life, which Obama does not stress, that promotes ‘‘the repressive side of American ethnocentrism.’’
Obama’s own communitarian ideals stem, at least in part, from his work as a community organizer. Initially somewhat standoffish, as he developed deeper relationships within the communities he was trying to organize, he learned that people’s self-narrative, originating in the struggles they or their loved ones had faced in their lives, shaped their political perspectives as much as narrow self-interest. Close calls with illness or watching a family member struggle with their problems led people to community involvement more than the desire for an immediate political payoff.
Reflecting communitarian sentiments, he often speaks of how Americans should view and treat each other, particularly emphasizing the importance of empathy. In a commencement address at Xavier University in New Orleans, he discussed the idea of caring for others in the community. ‘‘You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy de?- cit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town.’’
His communitarian bent sometimes leads him to advocate positions at odds with traditional liberal policy approaches. For example, his experience working with churches as a community organizer led him to conclude that faith-based approaches to solving social problems are often more effective than government initiatives, because they reflect a deeper understanding of human experience. In a widely covered speech on the relationship between religion and politics, he argued that although gun control laws are necessary, ‘‘when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody has disrespected him, we’ve got a moral problem. There’s a hole in that young man’s heart—a hole that government alone cannot fix.’’ He made a similar argument regarding AIDS prevention in a speech to southern California evangelicals. While emphasizing that condoms played a key role in fighting the disease, he also stressed the ‘‘spiritual component to prevention’’ and the idea that ‘‘the relationship between men and women, between sexuality and spirituality has broken down and needs to be repaired.’’ He notes that historically black churches are especially able to foster social change, because of their deep roots in the experiences of a particular community. ‘‘Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities.’’
Like others on the so-called ‘‘religious left,’’ he has challenged other Democrats to take religion’s role in the public sphere more seriously, rather than hiding behind concerns about separation of church and state. He points to leaders of the past, including Frederick Douglass,
Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Williams Jennings Bryan, who were motivated by faith and used religious language to argue for change. At the same time, he warns that public policy can- not be justified solely on religious grounds, but must be subject to argument and reason. He argues that opponents of abortion, for example, must ‘‘explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.’’
When promoting the communitarian idea of balancing rights and responsibilities, Obama once again acknowledges the individualistic component of the American Dream, while pointing out its limits. For example, he argues that while society has an obligation to make the
American Dream attainable, individuals must make the most of their opportunities. In speaking about the challenges facing the country in a global economy, he posed the following questions to his audience. ‘‘Can we honestly say our kids are working twice as hard as the kids in India and China who are graduating ahead of us, with better test scores and the tools they need to kick our butts on the job market? Can we honestly say our teachers are working twice as hard, or our parents?’’ In a somewhat different vein, Obama stresses the limits of individualism when he criticizes the irresponsible use of the right of freedom of expression. He argues that ‘‘a mass media culture that saturates our airwaves with a steady stream of sex, violence, and materialism’’ threatens American culture. This support of a balance between rights and responsibilities allows Obama to challenge traditional liberalism in a politically effective fashion, reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s ‘‘third way’’ approaches.
In addition to his message of community, Obama also emphasizes that the American Dream involves a commitment to equality. Although less central to the American ethos than individualism, and often violated historically, the egalitarian ideal has been an element in the American creed since the Declaration of Independence. This value has been central to Obama’s message since his primary campaign, where his rhetoric promoted the idea that Americans regardless of race, ethnicity, faith, and income are bound by a common human decency. In his primary election night victory speech, he linked the belief in equality to the mission of the Democratic party: ‘‘At its best, the idea of this party has been that we are going to expand opportunity and include people that have not been included, that we are going to give a voice to the voiceless, and power to the powerless, and embrace people from the outside and bring them inside, and give them a piece of the American dream.’’ He argues that when luck and accidents of birth determine life outcomes, it undermines the American Dream. Instead, he contends that Americans must ‘‘build a community where, at the very least, everyone has the chance to work hard, get ahead, and reach their dreams.’’
To translate this belief into practice, he has advocated more egalitarian public policies in areas ranging from health care to bankruptcy reform. On the latter, he argued on the Senate floor for treating rich and poor equally. ‘‘If we’re going to crack down on bankruptcy abuse, we should make it clear that we intend to hold the wealthy and powerful accountable, too.… What kind of message does it send when we tell hardworking, middle-class Americans, ‘You have to be more responsible with your finances, but the corporations you work for can be as irresponsible as they want with theirs?’ ’’ In a similar vein, he has at times argued for European-style social policies, such as paid leave for women after they have babies. He has criticized the repeal of the estate tax for disconnecting the economic fates of people in different social classes, arguing, ‘‘once your drapes cost more than the average American’s yearly salary, then you can afford to pay a bit more in taxes.’’
He often speaks of equality in connection with the role that public education plays in supporting the American Dream. He notes that the government has promoted equality of opportunity through the system of free public high schools and the GI Bill. He quotes approvingly Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that ‘‘talent and virtue needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth, birth or other accidental condition.’’ Current inequalities in education stemming from funding differences undermine this ideal, Obama contends. In a speech on education he claimed that ‘‘in too many places, kids are going to school in trailers where rats are more numerous than computers.’’ In the same speech, he cites reports of a Los Angeles high school that offers students two levels of hairstyling courses, but does little to prepare them for college. His emphasis on the role of education in promoting equality reflects a canny understanding of its more fundamental relationship to the American Dream. In contrast to its history of being a laggard in creating most social programs, the United States has been a policy and spending leader on public education. This commitment reflects the American view that it is the government’s responsibility to provide opportunity for citizens to achieve an appropriate standard of living, rather than to guarantee a livelihood for all, a view more prevalent in Europe.
Obama’s themes of the importance of equality and community come together as he discusses the global economy’s challenges to the American Dream. He contends that while globalization threatens to create economic stagnation that undermines the American Dream, it also presents the opportunity to revitalize it. In his speeches he often points out that the competition and mobility that the global economy creates increases the importance of skills in determining individual success. He notes that workers in Illinois are competing with those in China and India, while those countries are upgrading their educational systems, especially in math, science, and technical areas. This leads him to conclude that collective action and not just individual competitiveness is necessary to keep the American Dream alive. Therefore, he believes that government must step in to make the United States more competitive, through upgrading education, making college more affordable, increasing funding for job retraining for laid-off workers, and making scientific research a top priority. He also calls for a safety net to protect against the rough edges of the global economy by guaranteeing health insurance and pensions. Promoting this agenda, he argues, will lead the Democratic party to become the party of opportunity and the American Dream.
We now turn to the question of whether Obama’s vision of the American Dream will resonate with the public. At some level, this message has been successful, helping him win his senate seat and putting him in great demand as a speaker. Concerns about the future of the American Dream are also particularly relevant as Americans struggle to adapt to the global economy. A poll taken by Opinion Research in October 2006 revealed that a slight majority (54 percent) thought that the American Dream had become impossible for most people to achieve. These results contrast with surveys taken in the 1950s and 1980s showing that 70 percent or more of the public thought the American Dream was attainable.
Still, the egalitarian and communitarian values that Obama advocates may not mesh with the centrality of individualism and freedom in the American belief system. It’s not that equality and community have no significance for Americans. The commitment to equality motivated the Progressive Movement of a century ago, which saw government power as a way to address the inequities of capitalism, not to mention Jacksonian Democracy, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights movement. The belief in community shaped America’s founding, as well as paving the way for post–World War II prosperity. Nevertheless, it is hard to dispute that economic individualism has been a dominant value since at least the 1980s. Contemporary polls show that Americans are much more attached to political equality than its economic component, especially compared to citizens in other advanced democracies.
Furthermore, Americans generally tend to be optimistic, even unrealistically so, about their own economic prospects. Thus, they are not inclined to accept appeals to redistribute income. Moreover, Obama’s calls for government action to solve problems, especially those related to inequality in areas like health care, conflict with widespread antigovernment beliefs that prevail in the United States.
Obama seems to have recognized that there are limits to how much public sector activity the public will accept. Thus, he stresses his open- ness to nongovernmental means to solving social problems, including market- and faith-based approaches. He also tries to root his appeals to equality and community in U.S. history, perhaps to make them more palatable, thus providing his listeners with a narrative that connects cur- rent policy conundrums with past efforts to resolve them. In a speech to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees national convention, he noted that today’s workers wonder whether their children will have a better future, be able to afford college and retirement, and avoid losing their jobs. He placed these concerns in historical con- text, comparing them to the problems facing sanitation workers in Memphis in the 1960s who acted collectively and successfully, despite arrests, police brutality, and, ultimately the assassination of Martin Luther King.
In another speech, he described how the efforts of meatpackers to organize in the 1930s also promoted visions of community and equality.
Imagine—these people would slave away in these plants all day long, freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer, watching coworkers get their bones crushed in machines and friends get ?red for even uttering the word ‘‘union’’—and yet after they punched their card at the end of the day they organized. They went to meetings and they passed out leaflets.
They put aside decades of ethnic and racial tension and elected women,
African Americans, and immigrants to leadership positions so that they could speak with one voice.
He notes that he shares the belief in government action with revered historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, who promoted government- sponsored scientific research, infrastructure spending, and higher education to nurture the American Dream.
In addition to grounding them historically, he packages the egalitarian elements of his message in a way that makes them more appealing. For example, as noted above, he emphasizes equality in the context of education, an issue that has an intimate connection to the American Dream.
He also advocates policies that achieve egalitarian ends by serving all social classes, such as parental leave or universal health care, rather than advocating explicit income redistribution or programs targeted to the poor. He qualifies his support for affirmative action by noting, ‘‘an emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific, programs isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics.’’ The widespread public acceptance of broadly targeted programs in the past, such as social security, in contrast to, say, Aid for Dependent Children, suggests that this emphasis is politically astute. In a more politically risky vein, perhaps, he defends immigration in the context of the American Dream, arguing that immigrants reflect the classic American story of ‘‘ambition and adaptation, hard work and education, assimilation and upward mobility.’’
In sum, Obama’s rhetoric challenges assumptions about individualism and the role of government that have been fairly prevalent since the tax revolt of the late 1970s. Nevertheless, he packages his message carefully and does not offer the kind of head-on challenge that, say, the late Senator Paul Wellstone did when he called more forcefully for policies that would redistribute income. In fact, his current rhetoric contrasts somewhat with his record as a state senator, when he pushed for more explicitly redistributive programs. Still, given the fact that egalitarian sentiments appeal to Americans more during times of relative crisis, his caution is probably astute.
POLITICAL REFORM AND IMPROVING THE QUALITY
OF POLITICAL DEBATE
Since his days in the Illinois state senate, Obama has positioned him- self as a political reformer. He has continued in this role in his first term as a U.S. Senator, becoming the point man for Democrats on ethics reform. As part of this effort, he has criticized the role of money and connections in politics. He has called the necessity of fundraising the ‘‘original sin’’ of everyone who’s run for political office, leading politicians to spend an inordinate amount of time with lobbyists and the wealthy, while ignoring the concerns of the less affluent, such as Americans without health insurance. Along somewhat similar lines, he has criticized the Bush administration for giving billions of dollars tax breaks to oil companies with powerful lobbyists, while underfunding alternative energy proposals.
His reformist bent is not limited to institutional reform, however, as he has advocated broader efforts to improve the tone and quality of political discourse. As discussed in chapter 3, he often emphasized this theme in his general election campaign, when he criticized Alan Keyes for negative campaigning, misleading rhetoric, and ignoring bread-and-butter issues that were fundamental to voters. Damning negative campaigning is, of course, politically advantageous for a candidate with a forty-point lead in the polls. When Obama was less well known, his rhetoric sometimes had a harder edge. For example, in a 2002 anti–Iraq
War speech that fueled his support among liberals, he called presidential adviser Karl Rove a ‘‘political hack’’ and dismissed other prominent administration figures as ‘‘armchair warriors.’’ His 2000 congressional opponent Bobby Rush also accused Obama of running misleading radio ads that lied about his opponent’s record.
In fairness, his few forays into negativity pale in comparison to the tone of much contemporary, or even historical, campaign rhetoric. Furthermore, Obama rarely used negative attacks, even when he was far behind in the primary race. In any event, his Democratic National Convention speech pointedly criticized campaign consultants who foster divisions among Americans. More recently, he has argued that a divided public plays into the hands of antigovernment conservatives, because ‘‘a polarized electorate that is turned off to politics and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty tone of the debate works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government, because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.’’
In Washington, he has, quoting his predecessor Senator Paul Simon, called for politicians to ‘‘disagree without being disagreeable,’’ arguing that ‘‘the American people sent us here to be their voice. They under- stand that those voices can at times become loud and argumentative, but … they expect both parties to work together and get the people’s business done.’’ As such, he has often tried to separate personal and policy disagreements. For example, in a speech criticizing President
Bush’s plans to privatize programs such as social security and the public schools, he gave the president at least a back-handed compliment. ‘‘I don’t think George Bush is a bad man. I think he loves his country. I don’t think this administration is full of stupid people—I think there are a lot of smart folks in there. The problem isn’t that their philosophy isn’t working the way it’s supposed to—it’s that it is.’’ Similarly, in criticizing the Bush administration’s efforts to enhance the president’s power to fight terrorism, he said that he disagrees with the president’s interpretation of the Constitution, without ‘‘doubting his sincerity.’’
Connecting institutional and rhetorical reforms, he has denounced the ‘‘game’’ of politics as it is currently played in Washington. He con- tends that the obsession with how a party’s or individual’s political standing is helped or hurt by a particular event or decision undermines the ability to have a serious debate on issues like climate change or health care. In a speech on the latter issue, he noted, ‘‘we just spent three weeks arguing over the filibuster, but I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve talked about health care since I was sworn in last January. Yet, when I come back here and talk to families in Illinois, that’s all they tell me about.’’ This same dynamic, in Obama’s view, leads to an inordinate focus on issues that have political traction with a portion of the electorate, such as the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. His most pointed criticisms in this realm have come on the Iraq issue. In a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, he chastised the Bush administration for conducting a ‘‘political war—a war of talking points and Sunday news shows and spin’’ that detracts from ‘‘a pragmatic solution to the real war we’re facing in Iraq.’’ In the same speech, he criticized the administration for trivializing the debate about the war by forcing it into two over-simplified options: ‘‘stay the course’’ or ‘‘cut and run.’’
To improve the tone of political debate, he calls for self-examination, doubt, and awareness of one’s own fallibility. A notable aspect of his July 2006 speech on the role of religion in politics is his emphasis on his own mistakes. He expressed regret for not adequately defending his own faith in the face of Alan Keyes’s charge that Jesus wouldn’t vote for Obama and for not speaking of abortion in ‘‘fair-minded words.’’ In an interview after the speech, he elaborated the idea of reconsidering and questioning one’s premises. ‘‘I think the advantage that progressives and
Democrats have is that we have the facts on our side … and if we are willing to tolerate ambiguity and dissent in our own camp, and if we’re willing to look critically at ourselves, and reflect and remain open- minded to other points of view, over time that’s where the American people are.’’
Somewhat paradoxically, he calls for a bolder and more visionary politics, citing political leaders of the past, such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. ‘‘It’s the timidity of our politics that’s holding us back right now—the politics of can’t-do and oh-well. An energy crisis that jeopardizes our security and our economy? No magic wand to fix it, we’re told. Thousands of jobs vanishing overseas? It’s actually healthier for the economy that way. Three days late to the worst natural disaster in American history? Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.’’ Ultimately, he sees the failure of politics to address the concerns of ordinary Americans as a threat to the American Dream. In a speech at the Emily’s List Annual Luncheon, he said,
‘‘Americans … still believe in an America where anything’s possible— they just don’t think their leaders do. These are Americans who still dream big dreams—they just sense their leaders have forgotten how.’’
Once again, we turn to the question of whether this message will resonate. It is hard to go wrong criticizing politicians and Washington, given widespread beliefs that the U.S. political system is broken. Criticism alone can be a bad move for progressive politicians, however, as it can delegitimize the very institutions they need to accomplish anything.
Thus, Obama must walk a fine line when pushing for reforms because the critiques that justify the improvements may make voters more cynical. Hence, as discussed above, while criticizing contemporary politics, he also criticizes the critics who would only tear down existing institutions. While in some respects he resembles the leaders of the Progressive
Movement of a century ago, he seems to recognize that the procedural reforms of that era, such as direct democracy through the initiative, have a mixed legacy. In fact, this may be why Obama himself spends more time talking about improving the ‘‘tone’’ of politics than about procedural reforms. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he writes approvingly of reforms like public financing of campaigns or changing archaic Senate rules. Nevertheless, he notes that real improvements in the current state of politics require political courage more than procedural tinkering.
Obama’s efforts to refocus political debate on bread-and-butter issues is likely to appeal to many centrist voters who are tired of narrow political appeals to a small base of voters and who don’t consider morality issues a top concern. The question is whether the public will really pay attention. Americans have gotten used to emotional appeals that dramatize politics and politicians who ‘‘appeal to their vanity rather than speak to their needs.’’ In his Senate campaign, Obama called for a more engaged citizenry, and people seemed to respond, but it is not clear whether the public can break its addiction to political junk food.
Obama’s emphasis on fallibility and doubt, while appealing as a human quality, may be too complex in the contemporary political environment and may tarnish his image as a leader. The nuances of his rhetoric and his willingness to accept different points of view may make it seem as if he is not resolute enough to be an effective leader, at least as that has been defined in the public mind in the post-9/11 era. Some pundits have noted the negative connotations of his reputation for thoughtfulness. For example, in analyzing Obama’s 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, Time magazine writer Joe Klein complained, ‘‘I counted no fewer than 50 instances of excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness.…’’ On the other hand (pun intended), this style may be a welcome change from the inflexibility of the Bush administration.
POST-PARTISAN POLITICAL THINKING
During his time as a state senator, although known as open-minded, Obama had the reputation as a ‘‘darling of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing.’’ In his primary campaign, Obama promised to ‘‘act like a Democrat’’ if he were elected, and early in the general election race he fended off attacks from Republicans that he was too liberal. While he was in the race, Republican candidate Jack Ryan’s campaign disseminated widely a comment by Republican State Senator Steve Rauschenberger that Obama was ‘‘to the left of Mao Tse-Tung.
Later, he adopted a more nonideological vision, arguing that the political debates of the 1960s, which shape Republican and Democratic thinking even today, present false ‘‘either/or’’ choices when applied to contemporary policy issues. In his Democratic National Convention speech, he famously stressed that ‘‘there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is a United States of America.’’ In the Senate, he has often advocated (and practiced) bipartisanship, working with Republicans on issues like immigration reform, improving government contracting practices, and energy policy. With respect to the latter, he has called for market-based solutions involving tax credits, often favored by Republicans, rather than the more traditional Democratic approach involving regulation. In a similar light, he has expressed skepticism that new programs or new bureaucracies alone will solve the country’s problems.
In an interview with the American Prospect magazine, he was asked to define himself as a liberal, progressive, or centrist. His answer was that ‘‘I like to think that I’m above it. Only in the sense that I don’t like how the categories are set up.’’ He later added, ‘‘I share all the aims of Paul Wellstone or Ted Kennedy when it comes to the end result. But I’m much more agnostic, much more flexible on how we achieve those ends.’’ In a sense, he rejects the very concept of ideology, arguing that it leads people to ignore facts that contradict their theoretical assumptions. He has cited Robert Kennedy as a political role model for combining moralism and pragmatism in politics in a way that was both ‘‘hard-headed and big-hearted.’’
While criticizing the Bush administration for politicizing issues like Iraq and gay marriage to promote political ends over good policy, he has taken his own party to task for being blinded by ideology as well.
For instance, he has charged that left-wing Democrats are becoming too intolerant of any deviation from the party line, such as supporting John Roberts to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He argues that most of the country views the world in a ‘‘nonideological lens,’’ and that Americans ‘‘don’t think that George Bush is mean-spirited or prejudiced, but have become aware that his administration is irresponsible and often incompetent.’’ ‘‘To the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one ‘true’ progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move the country forward.’’ Still, he has warned against a centrism that simply seeks middle-of-the-road approaches or compromise for its own sake. Although he sees conventional political ideologies as a restraint, simply splitting the difference does little to promote better policies.
This message is likely to resonate with ordinary voters, who appear to be tired of excessive partisanship. Clearly, it is less likely to appeal to partisan Democrats, who are angry over the Iraq War and the Bush administration in general. Critics on the left have questioned Obama’s support for Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, rather than his 2006 anti–Iraq War Democratic primary opponent Ned Lamont. Similarly, his vote for the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, and his support for centrist Democratic Senators through contributions from his political action committee have upset many in the liberal ‘‘base.’’ One of his most vociferous critics on the left, Alexander Cockburn of the Nation magazine, wrote, ‘‘What a slimy fellow Obama is, as befits a man symbolizing everything that will continue to be wrong with the Democratic party for the next twenty years.’’ His more sophisticated critics on the left, while critical of Obama’s apparent move to the center, realize that, given the cost of contemporary campaigns, it is impossible to both win elections and promote dissenting views in the Senate.
More generally, the connection that many people feel with Obama leads to the danger (for him) that they will be disappointed if his record does not meet their expectation. Finally, he must avoid appearing excessively technocratic. Criticizing the Bush administration’s incompetence is likely to appeal to many, especially Democrats, but presidential nominee Michael Dukakis famously lost the 1988 election with the message that competence was more important than ideology.
As discussed above, the ideas of incorporating equality and community into the American Dream, reforming politics and political debate, and post-partisan political approaches are central themes in Barack Obama’s rhetoric. The first is probably the most politically delicate, a fact that the nuance and even caution in his rhetoric on the subject appears to recognize. Reform and post-partisanship are likely to appeal widely to voters, but realizing these ideals may be more complicated than it appears on the surface. Clearly the three concepts are connected in Obama’s rhetoric, as he argues that excessive partisanship and the corruption of honest political argument subvert policies that would promote the American Dream.
Past research in political science suggests that successful politicians cultivate personal images that emphasize traits such as competence, leadership, integrity, and empathy. Obama clearly stresses these themes in his rhetoric. When he ties his own journey toward success to the American Dream, it subtly reinforces an image of competence and achievement. As discussed above, he often emphasizes the importance of empathy in his speeches. His focus on ethical government, such as trying to stop no-bid contracts or criticizing the role of money in politics reinforces the message of integrity. In his widely covered trip to Kenya in August 2006, he emphasized how government corruption undermined the nation’s economic progress. Leadership is a less prominent theme in his rhetoric. When he does talk about the concept, it is sometimes in the context of the Democratic Party, not himself as an individual, however. Moreover, the relative complexity of his rhetoric may undercut his image as a leader.
Obviously, a politician’s image depends not only on what he says, but how he says it. Richard Fenno argues that politicians are like actors, who use both a verbal script and, often more importantly, nonverbal cues to build an effective relationship with the public. Clearly, Obama has developed a ‘‘presentation of self’’ that further reinforces his positive qualities in the audience’s mind. To cite just one example, he often speaks with his fingertips slightly entwined, which is a sign of intelligence, an obvious element of competence. More broadly, his speaking style unites the disparate elements of his life story in a way that sup- ports his larger message. When asked to describe what influences his rhetorical approach, he cited the black church, his experience as a law professor, and ‘‘a smattering of Hawaii, Indonesia, and maybe Kansas.’’
The fusing of different styles supports his basic message that many different kinds of people can live successfully in one nation.