In the speech that made his name in 2004, Illinois state senator Barack Obama jubilantly told the Democratic National Convention in Boston, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America.” On April 24, 2017, reflecting on the earlier speech, Obama said, “That was aspirational,” to widespread laughs. He added, “Honestly it’s not true when it comes to our politics.”
So he admits that the speech that made his name was so much hogwash. The memory reaches for some appropriate parallel.
“The wall is okay by me, Mr. Gorbachev.”
“Always ask what your country can do for you, because my thing is trading free stuff for votes.”
“I am a crook.”
A notion persists in some quarters that whatever President Obama’s political failings may have been, at least he was a master of oratory. The liberal commentators E. J. Dionne Jr. and Joy-Ann Reid have effectively destroyed this notion in the unkindest possible way: by publishing Obama’s speeches so we can review them for ourselves. In the book they have edited, We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama, it’s not just the 2004 DNC speech that no longer holds up; nearly every address reads like an unfortunate transcript from last night’s half-remembered eight-Guinness session at the pub. The book is the story of Obama’s ordering things to happen that are not, in fact, happening.
Dionne and Reid kick off the volume with what they evidently believe to be a prophetic speech: an anti–Iraq War address in the fall of 2002. Obama called it a “dumb war” and said launching a war could have unknown costs and consequences. True enough. But it’s important to remember that Obama didn’t say he opposed the war because he thought it was unwinnable or would spark a Sunni–Shiite conflict, or because the intelligence was shaky. No, Obama freely conceded that Saddam Hussein had “repeatedly defied U.N. resolutions . . . developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.” Iraq would be better off without him, Obama said. But he and other liberals opposed the war because they were afraid we’d win. And if we won, the American people might feel good about the Republican party.
“What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income . . . a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.” (Emphasis added.) Obama was afraid the Iraq War would be a big political win for Bush 43 just as Desert Storm had been for Bush 41. As for Saddam, Obama essentially argued that the way to deal with bullies is to hope they wear out their fists punching people in the face. “He can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.” Oh, is that how dictators go? They just “fall away,” all by themselves? You can just hear Bashar al-Assad laughing. Saddam Hussein would be laughing beside him if it weren’t for George W. Bush.
Remembering Obama as an inspiring speaker requires un-remembering most of what he said except for a few vapid and meaningless slogans. “Yes we can!” What? The speech that birthed that bumper sticker (cribbed from Deval Patrick’s 2006 campaign for Massachusetts governor) is included here, and, like many of the others, it was never designed to be committed to paper. A problem with transcribed speeches is that the eye naturally rereads dubious claims. After losing the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton in 2008, Obama tersely congratulated her, then gave a victory speech anyway. In it, he promises to get rid of bad schools, wean the country off oil (not just imported oil), and pay teachers more, not pausing to note that presidents don’t control spending and teachers aren’t ordinarily paid by the federal government anyway. He promises to bring the troops home from Iraq, “finish the job against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” and “repair this world.” Anyone who doubts any of this is part of “a chorus of cynics.” You know, like those of us who were cynical about whether Obama would actually be the unifier he pretended to be at the 2004 DNC.
How is the cynic chorus looking today, Mr. President? In his 2013 State of the Union speech, Obama said, “In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy. . . . We’ll keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders.” For “support,” we now read “forsake,” except it’s worse because Obama bears some degree of moral responsibility for inspiring Arab uprisings by repeatedly promising the Middle East’s revolution-minded democrats that he would back them. Vowing to help and then doing nothing is worse than remaining silent in the first place.
You might say Obama crossed this red line of balderdash nearly every time he spoke. He said in that same speech, “We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas,” as though that had already occurred simply because he mandated it to happen in the future (in an executive order the Trump administration is scrapping). Why not just sign a piece of paper saying, “Everyone in America must be a millionaire by 2025” and then declare you have made it so?
“We will keep faith with our veterans, investing in world-class care” is a line he threw into that speech and others. Yet when thousands of VA patients died waiting for a doctor and officials covered this up, Obama’s spokesman said the president had known nothing about the matter until he saw it on the news. In the same SOTU he rails against banks because “too many families with solid credit who want to buy a home are being rejected,” but 40 pages earlier, he was castigating “mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford.” That was in his “New Nationalism” speech. Remember when it was okay to be a nationalist? It was 2011.
Obama’s love of the comfy fog of vagueness makes it difficult to even figure out what he’s talking about if you don’t recall what was in the news at that moment. In his second inaugural speech, he says, “Our journey is not complete until all our children . . . know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.” Always safe? Airy utopian nonsense, of course, but what he’s talking about is more gun regulations, which Obama incorrectly thought the nation would demand after the Newtown massacre a few weeks prior. In Obama’s imagination, it’s obvious that children would always be safe from harm if only America would implement his policies.
When the facts of a matter don’t fit Obama’s needs, he provides alternative ones. After George Zimmerman was properly acquitted in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Obama pleaded, “Do we actually think [Martin] would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?” Obama here shows he is either ignorant of the basic facts of the case — Zimmerman didn’t shoot Martin because he “felt threatened” but because Martin was pounding his head into the sidewalk — or making a cynical appeal to his supporters by spinning a fictitious narrative to please them.
Obama did deliver one speech of truly lasting value: the race tutorial he gave to distance himself from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright in March 2008. At the time, Obama was being scored for awful judgment for having sat in Wright’s pews listening to the man fulminate against America for 20 years, and for having issued a carefully parsed and Clintonian denial that he had ever heard Wright say such things.
At the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Obama gave a speech that in passing acknowledged that his memory had now changed: “Of course” he had heard Wright’s calumnies, he now said, rendering inoperative his previous position that “the statements that Reverend Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach.” He skipped the bad-judgment question and mused about how race is all very fraught. Here’s the key to distracting the media from a controversy: Bring up a subject of proven fascination to them, give a basic newsmagazine-style overview of various arguments, then bask in the adoration of being labeled “sophisticated,” “nuanced,” “deep.”
“Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he said then, as if anyone had argued the contrary — but answering your own question instead of someone else’s is what political misdirection is all about. Obama beautifully played the media by presenting himself as an intermediary between two irreconcilable worlds, giving ample time to the historic mistreatment of blacks but also speaking sympathetically of whites who dislike busing and being told “that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudice.” The subtext of the speech was that Obama was calm, measured, professorial — nothing like the hot-tempered black preachers such as Wright, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan who had defined black politics in the generation before Obama.
When seeking to sound poetic, Obama often reaches for a favorite form: two pairs of things, separated by a comma, arranged in iambic (unstressed, stressed) or anapestic (unstressed, unstressed, stressed) meter. He’ll speak of the bad and the good, the good and the bad. On this occasion, needing to sound extra poetic with sprinkles on top, he served up two consecutive two pairs of things, as when he said black churches were full of contrasts: “The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America.” Then he signaled to the media that he would be strongly disappointed in them if they covered the matter any further, and when the media love you as much as they did Obama, that’s a smart strategy too. They backed off.
Recall, if you can, that Obama fans once believed his alleged rhetorical splendor had a purpose — to change the national mindset, to recreate a Democratic party as muscular as FDR’s. The actual result was that the country voted to check Obama through the House, then cast the Democrats into the worst position they’ve been in since the 1920s. We learned only recently that Obama’s classmates at Harvard Law School created an “Obamanometer” to measure the pretentiousness of student blather. This volume, in which Obama continually presents himself and his banal ideas (more federal student aid! more job training for middle-aged workers! higher taxes on the rich!) as ingenious new solutions, is a reminder that Obama never did develop beyond being the student cynosure, never did grow into a leader, never did grasp the difference between sonorousness and seriousness.