Obama's best speeches have always revolved around stories. Which one will he tell on Tuesday?

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Jan. 17 2009 4:40 PM

The Storyteller

Obama's best speeches have always revolved around stories. Which one will he tell on Tuesday?

See all of Slate's inauguration coverage.

Barack Obama has a lot of ground to cover in his inaugural address. He has to create optimism, kick off a new era, give the country a vision of happier days, act humbly, thank God, thank his family, live up to his own sky-high rhetorical expectations, and not get frostbite.

He will undoubtedly hit these marks. What I'm wondering is whether he's found a story for the moment. Some of Obama's most memorable campaign speeches were powerful because of the news—after his Iowa victory and after his defeat in New Hampshire—but the ones that were most successful on their own always ended with a story.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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Obama didn't just tell inspirational anecdotes. He told stories about a transaction—the moment inspiration jumps from one person to another. It was this transaction, repeated thousands of times, that turned the Obama candidacy into a movement. That it also happened to be an effective way to ask for people's votes was surely part of the plan. But Obama was also selling an idea that could sound corny or quaint: the notion that many small actions could make a large difference.

The sense of unity and collective action is the spirit he will try to rekindle Tuesday on the Mall. His inauguration speech will be framed with the idea of a "new era of responsibility," a theme he touched on at the end of the campaign and again in his recent speech about his economic recovery package. The idea is that everyone, from politicians to CEOs to those of us trying to get a bank loan, has to take greater responsibility to get us out of the fix we're in.

Sounds good. But how do you build this kind of thing, particularly in an age where trust in government is low and people are cynical and distrustful of their fellow humans for all the reasons Obama himself has outlined? To get us all on board with this idea, Obama has to wire us together. To build collective responsibility, there has to be social cohesion. If we're not all in this together, if my neighbor or editor isn't going to do his part, why will I bother to fulfill my responsibilities? I might also be doubtful about whether simply acting responsibly can change anything. And I might also reject the premise: Those Wall Street bankers did more than I did to get us into this mess. So why shouldn't they have to do more to get us out?

Obama undoubtedly knows this, which is why the entire inaugural cavalcade has been designed to help create unity. As Obama says in his message about the inauguration: "It's not about me. It's about us." His office has created Organizing for America to help people organize in their communities, and encouraged people to host inaugural celebrations in their hometowns and join together in a national day of service.

Some of that might actually work. But none of it will be able to match the power of a well-delivered speech, which much of America (and the world) will stop to watch. In his address, Obama could simply describe the dilemma and call for a collective effort to solve it. "The change we've worked so hard for will not happen unless ordinary Americans get involved," he said in his message announcing Organizing for America. Or he could return to familiar phrases about our ability to "recognize ourselves in each other." But he has the skills to be more rhetorically powerful. This is where the stories come in.

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