A great speech is not always a smart move.
Just about everybody hailed Barack Obama’s March 18 speech on race as an effort worthy of Martin Luther King. Within ten days, it scored almost 3.5 million views on YouTube.
Yet it’s not clear that the speech did Obama any good.
Two weeks before the speech, on March 4, Obama won the votes of roughly half of those white men who participated in Super Tuesday’s Democratic contests. By April, though, he had lost these voters. He was badly beaten in the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, largely because of his weakness among white working-class voters. In Indiana , the last of the Democratic primaries, almost half of all voters (46%) listed Obama’s association with his black nationalist pastor Jeremiah Wright as an important factor in their vote.
Obama’s national career was launched by a speech: his soaring keynote address at the Democratic convention in 2004. His candidacy in 2008 was buoyed by more beautiful speeches. When Hillary Clinton scored Obama’s rhetoric as “just words,” he scathingly (if not altogether originally) replied:
“Don't tell me words don't matter. I have a dream. Just words? We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Just words? We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Just words?”
So when he faced the greatest crisis of the primary season, it came naturally to him to believe that more beautiful words could turn things around.
Yet Obama’s eloquent March 18 speech failed as politics because it failed to answer the all-important question white voters were asking of him: How could you sit in Wright’s pew while he ranted and raved against the United States?
Throughout his life, Obama has skillfully used words to hide his meaning. Try to quote his memoir, Dreams From My Father. Go ahead—try. Sentences are poised and balanced against one another, positions cancel each other out. Listening to Obama talk, you come to feel that the very request for a plain answer to a plain question is vulgar, unfeeling, stupid.
But now Obama faces the test of a lifetime. Polls and focus groups suggest that white voters regard him as risky, uncertain. They want to know not only who he is—not only how they are supposed to feel about him—not only what his priorities are—but about what he would actually do if entrusted with the power of the presidency. And that is a question that presidential candidate Obama has not been in the habit of answering.
There is prose in politics as well as poetry. Ronald Reagan’s speeches are remembered as superbly eloquent. Reread after the fact, however, they are strikingly precise and programmatic. The magic was in the delivery: the words were very much matter of fact.
Obama’s gift as a writer is a gift for allusion, for mood, and for inspiration.
More often than not, however, elections are won by the candidate who seems steadier and safer. Eisenhower beat Stevenson. Johnson beat Goldwater. Had the 1976 election lasted another week, Ford would probably have beat Carter.
In these culminating weeks of the contest, Obama’s challenge is to convince those Americans not dazzled by him that they can nonetheless trust him. Obama dares voters to rise above limits. But can he rise above his own? Can he discover a rhetoric of fact and clarity? Can he dare to be dull?
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- After Ferguson, we don't need another dialogue on race
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- The government is getting into the fact-checking business. Be very, very afraid.
- Russia's new air force is a mystery
- How Democrats might goad the GOP into shutting down the government
- 10 things you need to know today: August 27, 2014
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
Subscribe to the Week