Obama's best speeches have always revolved around stories. Which one will he tell on Tuesday?
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During his campaign, Obama also had to convince people that individual action and connection could make a difference in a community (and, not incidentally, a campaign). Two examples from last year stand out. (If you want to experience them instead of having them synopsized—and you should—the first can be watched or read and the second can be watched here.)
The first is the story of Ashley Baia, a young white woman volunteering in his South Carolina office. Baia's personal story so affected a black man nearly three times her age that he became a volunteer in the Obama campaign. The story was so effective that Obama reprised the tale at the end of his speech on race in America. The second story is the one Obama told regularly throughout his campaign about being rallied by the spirit of an elderly woman on the city council in Greenwood, S.C.— the "fired up and ready to go" story he told perhaps never so well as on the last night of his campaign.
The goal of these stories was not just to make people feel good, though they did. It was to make the case for engagement. At the end of each campaign story of inspiration, he made the same claim—that a voice could change a room and a room could change a city and a city could change a state and a state could change a nation.
To convince Americans to make a collective sacrifice, Obama first has to convince them that they face a collective danger. It's clear from Obama's recent statements that he believes the economy can be improved for the long term only if people genuinely embrace a new feeling of shared responsibility. "There are going to be very difficult choices," he told the Washington Post, choices requiring "sacrifice and responsibility and duty."
Will Obama find his story? One might have landed in his lap in the heroic actions of Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, the pilot who safely landed that US Airways jet in New York's Hudson River on Thursday. There are rumors he might make an inauguration appearance. What better tale for the times than one of calm, collective action at a moment of crisis?
Then again, storytelling can feel forced, and it's certainly not crucial for an inaugural address, which is a clear departure from the campaign rhetoric. Kennedy's famous address did not include any anecdotes, yet for inspirational punch, it ranks alongside the one Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the other end of the Mall two and a half years later.
Of course, there is another approach available to Obama. Maybe he doesn't need a new story because just by standing there, he will be the story. In many ways, despite what he's said about Tuesday, the story will not be about us—it will be about him.