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Obama's Eloquence: Mistaking the Artist for the Art

I’m not sure anyone expected that the celebration of Barack Obama would have continued this long, yet it is still in full swing. For once, right-wing pundits may have a point when they lash back, but they also have a well-deserved credibility problem. The question remains, however: What might be lost in the shadows when all the lights are on Obama?

Let me offer one of the many answers that could be provided: By celebrating Obama too much, we can conclude that only he can do what he does well. When he is the only figure in the picture and the only hero in the story, it becomes too easy to see him as the sole embodiment of virtues that could be developed more broadly.

This conflation of the political leader and his skills is most evident in the responses to Obama’s eloquence. Perhaps because the contrast with his predecessor could not be greater, it quickly became commonplace to declare that Obama’s speeches, answers, and other remarks were astonishingly skilled. Make no mistake about it: he’s a very, very good speaker–and one whose speeches, like everything else he does, show all the marks of political genius. But you don’t have to be a genius to speak effectively.

The photograph above features Obama’s sure command of the platform, but it also reveals commonly available means of persuasion. Obama is speaking at a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Indiana. The white dots on the blue background could be lights but actually are the stars on a large American flag. Framed by the flag and the closely cropped photograph, Obama appears to be the epitome of the political leader as public speaker. His words can’t be shown in the photograph, of course, but look at what is on display: the focused line of sight toward the audience, the comfortable ability to speak across the microphone rather than be disturbed by it, the thoughtful tilt of the head as he strives to connect with the questioner, the forceful gesture of arm and hand to emphasize the argumentative point while exuding confidence, the slight smile of public combativeness oriented toward conciliation, and all seemingly without breaking a sweat.

You can’t deliver a speech much better than that. But asking how he does it is like asking how an NBA player can make a three-pointer. He can do it because he’s done it a million times. And because he studies the game, and works at it, and enjoys it when he does it well. And if everyone can’t play in the NBA, anyone can become a better player if they work at it. The same holds for public speech.

If you look at Obama performing, you can see how to do it well. Look closely and you also will see a lot of small mistakes and other features of ordinary, everyday communication. He’s not perfect, and virtually everything he does is something anyone could do with a bit of practice. How to answer questions masterfully? Well, if asked two questions at once, respond to each in turn directly and succinctly and don’t answer other questions that weren’t asked. How to respond when someone is channeling the opposition’s talking point? Well, identify the source and its characteristic bias, then counter with the corresponding principle on your side. How to do this without dying of nervousness? Well, put yourself where you get to practice before others who take it seriously.

When looking at Obama on the stump, you can see the consummate public speaker without peer, or you can see the art of rhetoric that he practices. That art is something that can be taught to and learned by ordinary people. More to the point, democracy depends on ordinary people taking turns speaking and listening with some commitment to doing both well. To think that only great speakers can speak well is to mistake the artist for the art.

Someone once said that the genius of democracy is that it doesn’t require genius. A good monarchy requires a great monarch, while democracy can do just as well or better if ordinary people put enough effort into public discussion. Obama concluded his press conference Tuesday night by saying that he believed in civility and rational argument. Those are the values of good public speech. He shows how it’s done, but many people could do it. Let’s admire the artist, but work at the art.

White House photograph by Pete Souza, 2/9/09.


Obama's Eloquence: Mistaking the Artist for the Art


3 Responses

  1. Because I’m working through preliminary ideas about the connections between Obama and basketball (shameless self-promotion here:, I’m curious whether or not the NBA reference was a conscious choice? I’m thinking that the shift from Bush/baseball to Obama/basketball could be another manifestation of your claim that “the contrast with his predecessor could not be greater.” In other words, if Obama is our “first black president,” then might there be a logic to invoking basketball as political metaphor when baseball and football have long been the standards? Although Obama identifies as a baseball and college football fan, he actively plays basketball and, as a rhetor, embodies the aesthetics of African American peformance that are linked not only to speech, but also to dance, jazz, and basketball. Thus, the “obviousness” of Obama’s race articulates easily with these forms, making basketball a more appropriate symbol for the new president. All of which, perhaps, signals a shift in the language of sport used in presidential rhetoric.

    Of course, it may just have been the first sports reference that came to mind…

  2. Hariman says

    Michael: It was a conscious choice, but not that conscious. I see nothing wrong with your analysis, although one question is whether any sports metaphor in the political process bears much thought most of the time. There will be a good article to or two to be written about the Obama/basketball metaphor, if someone really understands both basketball and the game of politics, but most of the time the metaphor will be just on the verge of meaninglessness. Think cipher, or placeholder, or commonplace, or cliche in the making, etc. Of course, that can be true of much else from quotations to images, but the sports idiom may be particularly well suited to saying less than could be said.

  3. Thanks for the reply, although I think it perhaps dismisses sport too easily. Of course, much of the language of sport that is used in politics is silly–the “game-changer” cliche of the 2008 debate season, for example. Nevertheless, sport has historically served as a rather potent and viable site for political discourse, in some instances to the extent that it affects more legitimate arenas of politics. I suppose Jackie Robinson is the default here (problematic as that narrative is). But the very language of equality–the “level playing field”–is borrowed from the perception that sport offers a means of understanding democratic practices that other idioms do not. So, I guess I would argue that it is precisely because sport appears to be meaningless that it is able to cultivate political attitudes that can instead be quite meaningful. Not that this is the norm, of course, but I think we miss something valuable if we view sport only as a diversion from more authentic matters of politics.

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