We Are the Change We Seek:
The Speeches of Barack Obama
edited by e. j. dionne jr. and joy-ann reid
bloomsbury, 376 pages, $25
The one thing we know about Barack Obama—at least, we think we know it—is that he is a great orator. From the moment he entered the nation’s consciousness in the summer of 2004, when he delivered a stirring oration at the Democratic convention in support of John Kerry’s presidential candidacy, Obama was thought to be modern America’s golden-tongued prophet, a kind of Patrick Henry and Martin Luther King in one voice.
His speeches luxuriate in big abstractions and bold imagery—liberal writers and intellectuals have long loved him for that, hearing in him a fellow practitioner. But that kind of language works better in campaigns than in governance; eventually, you have to talk about things as they are, not just as you feel they should be, and so it was inevitable that the radiance of his oratory dimmed a little once he took office. Still, and despite his heavy reliance on teleprompters for even brief talks, he quickly became known among supporters and sympathetic commentators as the nation’s “orator-in-chief,” an office he filled by delivering lengthy and sometimes ponderous speeches at moments of apparent national crisis.
Were his speeches as good as we thought? It can be a tricky thing to judge the quality of an oration, so much of it depending on the occasion in which it occurred—tone, circumstance, timing, the audience’s mood. It’s especially tricky to judge the speeches of politicians whose views we dislike, and I confess to disliking Barack Obama’s views a great deal. Even so, the twenty-seven speeches collected in We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama, edited by E. J. Dionne Jr. and Joy-Ann Reid, are neither better nor worse, for the most part, than any other American politician’s speeches: often muddled, consistently unmemorable, and boring.
Obama’s rhetorical strength was nuance. He could articulate one side, then the other; one side, then the other; each time making his own side sound more attractive, until at last he brought you over. Those on the opposite side complained that his articulation of their view was hopelessly askew, but it was a highly effective rhetorical tactic nonetheless.
His speech on race relations in 2008, “A More Perfect Union,” is a fine example of this. Obama delivered this lengthy address in response to controversy surrounding his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who had made ferociously anti-American statements in his sermons. In Obama’s speech, an impressive rhetorical achievement in its way, he defended Wright and chastised whites for failing to understand the reasons for Wright’s radicalism, then criticized Wright and blacks’ easy assumptions about white America, then defended Wright again, and so on, until at last he arrived at his answer: “Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us, let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.”
This kind of learned oscillation worked far better for Obama the candidate than Obama the president. It appeals to emotion rather than ratiocination; the only choice it asks of listeners is whether to put their trust in the speaker. The speech’s real solution wasn’t any set of policies but Obama himself.
Which I guess is why the speeches by President Obama are even duller than those of Senator Obama. Often his presidential addresses led you to expect some crucial insight, only to give you routine political speechifying. In a 2015 speech to the National Prayer Breakfast, for instance, Obama enunciated two principles that should guide Americans of faith as they “counteract” the intolerance perpetrated by “hate groups.” The first is humility: “I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt—not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others.” The second: We need to “uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments. Between church and between state. . . . Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all.”
Why was this and similarly feeble material included in a grandly titled book of presidential addresses? The only answer I can summon is that the people who admire Obama the most, the book’s editors and purchasers, sincerely feel that the forty-third president is a great orator and a serious intellectual. And that, in essence, is the defining problem of the Obama presidency and Barack Obama himself: His admirers see in him what they want to see. Maybe this can be said of all politicians. Once you decide you like and admire a politician for a set of reasons, you interpret contrary evidence in the most favorable possible way. Donald Trump put the point with characteristic brutality: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Discounting the hyperbole, that’s at least as true of Obama as it is of Trump.
The point is made unintentionally in the introduction to We Are the Change We Seek. The editors quote a passage from former senator Harry Reid’s memoir, The Good Fight. Reid recalls hearing a “phenomenal” speech by Obama in the Senate and complimenting the speaker afterward. Obama’s response: “I have a gift, Harry.” Now, any ordinary observer would interpret that remark as evidence of wild self-regard. Not Reid. He insists that Obama gave this answer “without the barest hint of braggadocio or conceit, and with what I would describe as deep humility.”
Just so, Obama’s most fervent supporters have long insisted on seeing an imaginary version of the real thing: confident yet humble, transcending partisan rancor and ideology, and above all a brilliant intellectual able to think outside the old categories and explain it all to a nation in crisis. The editors of We Are the Change We Seek put it as well as anyone: “For his supporters—and, increasingly, as his term concluded, for Americans who had grown weary of the endless partisan wars—Obama remained a figure intent on evoking Abraham Lincoln’s appeal to the ‘better angels of our nature.’”
So distant is this observation from anything I recognize in the presidency of Barack Obama that I can’t help thinking of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Near the end of the book, the narrator realizes the whites who had purported to help him had never seen him for who and what he was. “They were very much the same, each attempting to force his picture of reality upon me and neither giving a hoot in hell for how things looked to me. I was simply a material, a natural resource to be used. . . . [I]t all came out the same—except I now recognized my invisibility.” For the white liberals who idolize him, Obama has a gift, all right. He’s invisible.
Barton Swaim is author of The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.