How Obama does that thing he does.

Media criticism.
Feb. 14 2008 6:41 PM

How Obama Does That Thing He Does

A professor of rhetoric cracks the candidate's code.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Barack Obama bringeth rapture to his audience. They swoon and wobble, regardless of race, gender, or political affiliation, although few understand exactly why he has this effect on them.

No less an intellect than The New Yorker's George Packer confesses that moments after a 25-minute campaign speech by Obama in New Hampshire concluded, he couldn't remember exactly what the candidate said. Yet "the speech dissolved into pure feeling, which stayed with me for days," he writes.

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Given that many of his speeches are criminally short on specifics, as Leon Wieseltier writes this week, how does Obama do that thing he does? A 2005 paper (abstract) by University of Oregon professor of rhetoric David A. Frank unpeels Obama's momentous 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address (video and text here) for clues to his method. Obama's spellbinding oration earned near-universal raves, including one from establishment conservative Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, and its echoes can be heard in every speech he's given as a candidate for president.

Obama relies, Frank writes, on a "rhetorical strategy of consilience, where understanding results through translation, mediation, and an embrace of different languages, values, and traditions." He credits the New Republic's Noam Scheiber with translating Obama's cross-cultural signals in a 2004 campaign profile that documents the candidate's leap from the Illinois senate to the U.S. Senate. Scheiber observes:

Whereas many working-class voters are wary of African American candidates, whom they think will promote black interests at the expense of their own, they simply don't see Obama in these terms. This allows him to appeal to white voters on traditional Democratic issues like jobs, health care, and education—just like a white candidate would.

Bill Clinton disarmed race for blacks by inviting them to talk about it. Obama disarms race for white people by largely avoiding the topic. When he does talk about race, he makes sure to juxtapose the traumas experienced by nonblacks with those experienced by African-Americans, but without ever equating the two. His rhetoric is designed to bridge the space between whites and blacks so they can occupy a place where common principles reside and the "transcendent value of justice," as Frank writes, can be shared.

For instance, in a 2005 speech honoring civil rights hero John Lewis, Obama talks about campaigning for the Senate in Cairo, Ill., a town synonymous with overt racism. Obama is accompanied by Sen. Dick Durbin, to whom he directly compares himself. Obama calls himself "a black guy born in Hawaii with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas" and Durbin "the son of Lithuania immigrants born into very modest means in east St. Louis." They're both improbable success stories, and had the pair visited Cairo together 30 years previous, who knows what would have happened?

Obama's worries about what sort of reception he and Durbin will receive turn out to be baseless: It's an enthusiastic, mixed crowd, a living demonstration of the racial progress we've made, thanks to the courage of John Lewis and people like him.

In his 2004 convention speech, Obama concedes that we Americans have our differences. While race, geography, politics, and sexual orientation may separate individuals, he insists "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there's the United States of America." The same words issued by George W. Bush's mouth would move nobody, but a boundary walker like Obama has a way of making them sound genuine. The bonus point for Obama is that by calling for unity, he can also subtly reject the identity politics that have crippled the Democratic Party.

As the candidate who prides himself on disagreeing without being disagreeable, Obama takes on a Christlike quality for lots of people, especially white people. If a white American doesn't feel guilty about race, you can be almost certain that he feels anxious about it. Believe me, if these people had a street address where they could go and get absolution, they'd take the next taxi. Obama has a talent for extending forgiveness to the guilty and the anxious without requiring an apology from them first. Go forth and sin no more, he almost says, and never mind the reparations. No wonder they call him the brother from another planet.

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