It is a curious fact of our time that during eight years in which our nation’s media culture became more fragmented, our political climate grew more hostile and mistrustful, and 140 characters became the basic unit of the American attention span, the United States was governed by a president whose greatest asset as a leader was his gift for oratory. As a genre, the presidential speech presumes a broad and attentive audience. It proceeds from the premise that the speaker enjoys a certain amount of authority and legitimacy by virtue of the office. It is, in other words, a means of political communication apparently ill-suited to our clamorous, disjointed, and distracted culture. The election of Donald Trump–a Twitter-addicted former reality TV host whose favorite modifier is “very”–suggests the depths to which oratory has fallen in the public’s estimation. And yet for a variety of reasons–fond memories of FDR and JFK at the rostrum, the evergreen popularity of The West Wing, Americans’ near-religious reverence for the office of the presidency (if not for the people who occupy it)–the transformative speech remains a powerful trope of American politics.
Throughout his political career, Barack Obama both benefited from and contributed to the enduring American appetite for inspiring presidential rhetoric. A strong case can be made that Obama was elevated to office largely on the strength and beauty of his speeches, which counterbalanced a thin legislative record and provided a welcome contrast to the stilted, slightly puzzled style of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama’s facility with words didn’t just far outstrip the abilities of his contemporaries, both within the United States and around the world. It also rivaled that of the best-known orators of modern times, figures like Franklin Roosevelt, the Kennedy brothers, Ronald Reagan, Mario Cuomo, and Václav Havel. Obama’s record, like theirs, cannot be judged by his words alone. But the extent to which he staked his reputation on oratory, as well as the frequency with which he turned to speeches at vital moments in his presidency, means that any consideration of his legacy demands a careful examination of his rhetoric.
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