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Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Why Barack Obama's Speeches Will Outlive His Presidency

Harry Cheadle

Harry Cheadle

Whatever happens to the president's policy legacy, we'll always have his words.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Barack Obama wasn't even a US senator when he showed up onstage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, in a prime speaking slot. Relatively unheralded and unknown, the self-described "skinny kid with a funny name" was a 42-year-old Illinois state senator who, it turned out, could speak pretty well. In 16 minutes, he brought the convention to its feet with a message of inclusiveness, progressive politics, and a boundless, almost naïve faith in America. It was praised universally and had people talking about Obama as the first black president.

And then, improbably, he delivered on that promise, thanks in no small part to his unparalleled ability as a orator. During his presidential run, whenever he needed a big speech to boost his candidacy, he gave one. When he was president, whenever the country needed him to address a tragedy, he did so.


Obama's 2004 DNC Speech:

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That 2004 speech is rightly remembered as the start of Obama's rise, but it won't go down as his best or most powerful address. Nor did it power him to victory in his Senate race, which he won easily after his opponent dropped out after an absurd sex scandal involving allegations of wanting his ex-wife to go with him to a sex club. But it marked out the major themes of future Obama speeches: the promise of America, the genuine love of country, the notion that Americans as a people are always working to improve their lives and lives of those around them. It's the kind of optimism that Americans love, the kind of hope and faith in progress that seems uniquely powerful coming from a black man.  

As a presidential candidate, Obama's best speeches were, obviously, all about pushing forward his campaign. One of the most consequential came out of the 2007 Jefferson Jackson Dinner speech, a fundraising event in Iowa. In that stem-winder, Obama told his story and contrasted himself against his rival Hillary Clinton—painting himself as a more honest, more progressive alternative to her, while dismissing criticism that he was too inexperienced to be president. Then there was "A More Perfect Union," an address on race, anger, and the importance of the church in the black community that Obama gave in March 2008 to respond to criticism of his Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright. It was eloquent, nuanced, and careful—and maybe more important, it helped put to rest a controversy during a contentious battle for the Democratic nomination. The rest is literally history.


Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:


Over the next eight years, Obama would give many speeches. Lots of them were routine, some were obviously in service of some policy end (his 2009 address at Cairo University was a carefully planned, and controversial, olive branch to the Muslim world), and a few were streaked through with more beauty than you'd expect from an ordinary president (his eulogy for the victims of the Charleston shooting, which ended with him breaking into "Amazing Grace"). 

As Obama's presidency ends, it's an open question how much of his legacy will survive the coming Republican efforts to tear it down. But the best of his speeches will remain to be studied—as snapshots of how Obama and his administration thought about the world, as explanations for his actions, and also as a guide for how liberals can remain hopeful even in a post-Obama age.

Twenty-six of Obama's most important speeches have been collected in We Are the Change We Seek, a book edited by MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid and liberal commentator and author E.J. Dionne that's coming out next month from Bloomsbury USA. It's a compilation that reminds readers of both the power of some of Obama's rhetoric and the sweep of the issues he attempted to tackle during his presidency—he spoke about just war while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, racism and reform in Selma, progressive economic policy in Osawatomie, Kansas, gun control in Newtown. 

Recently I spoke with Dionne about Obama's speaking style, the difference between hope and optimism, and why Obama wasn't able, despite all his gifts, to persuade the country to support his most important policies.

VICE: Do you think that we'll be studying Obama's speeches years down the line?
E.J. Dione: The answer is yes for a number of reasons. One is I think Obama so clearly falls into the tradition of Lincoln and Martin Luther King in rhetorical strategy that so often involves calling America back to its own promise. Like Lincoln and King, he loves to cite the founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—and his love for the phrase "more perfect union," his use of the word "perfect" more as a verb than as an adjective—all of that puts him in a long, and I think it's fair to say noble, tradition.

The second reason is he's the only president who addressed race from the point of view of someone who is African American. But also someone who straddles the divide as a biracial person. He was constantly explaining black America to white America, though he was occasionally explaining white America to black America. There's no other president who has done that. 

The third is another tradition he represents, which is a preacherly style that I think of as "Civil Rights Christianity." It's a style that is very much out of the African American church in the 50s and 60s. The place you obviously see that particularly powerfully is in the Charleston eulogy. We remember rhetoric that forges a tradition—and I think he did that by combining those elements—but also is part of a tradition. I think there are elements of Obama on both sides of that.


Obama's eulogy for the victims of the Charleston shooting:


You mentioned the Charleston speech. Do you think that will be the one he's most remembered for?
There's a philosopher [Paul Crittenden] with a book called Reason, Will, and Emotion. In Charleston, Obama channeled emotion in an incredibly constructive way. In Selma, he channeled reason and emotion to spark a will to reform. I think Selma explained his view of American history, of the role of the reformer, of the importance of the agitator to reform, and also of a vision of a very inclusive America. So I think Selma would be at the top of my list. But the Charleston speech is incredibly powerful.


Obama speaking at the 50th anniversary of the famous Civil Rights march in Selma, Alabama:


What are your top three or four Obama speeches? Either the most important historically, or your personal favorites.
One of my personal favorites is somewhat eccentric because of my own interests. I think his 2006 speech to the Call to Renewal Conference—run by Jim Wallace, a progressive evangelical—is the best speech a politician has given about religion and public life in a very long time. It so powerfully and intelligently describes the obligations of believers to nonbelievers and the obligations of nonbelievers to believers in a pluralistic democracy. More than most liberals, he is insistent on the role of religion in American public life and American history, and he takes liberals to task for a certain prejudice against religion. But he also takes to task religious people who will not acknowledge the importance of nonbelievers in the American population. 

Selma, I think, will go down as an extraordinarily important speech. But if you want to take three, it gets harder for me. There are a lot of runners-up in that category. The Nobel speech was a fascinating argument from someone who is not a pacifist—it's in a way one of the best defenses of just war that a politician has given. I happen to really like the Howard commencement speech this year because it's calling for patience in a democracy, and it insists that activism has to be harnessed with patience and persistence, which is not something you hear people talk about a lot. 


Obama's commencement address at Howard University from March 2016


You have to include two others just because they were so politically important. One is his '04 convention speech, which I think is fascinating because we remember it as "there is no red America and no blue America, but the United States of America," a conciliatory speech, but when you read the whole thing, it was also a partisan critique of the Republicans who were dividing us. I think the tension between those two ideas is the tension that animated and plagued the whole Obama term—he constantly wanted to be the unifier but was well aware that he was facing an implacable enemy, particularly after his first year in office. 

Then there's the Jeremiah Wright speech, which was so important to his political survival at the moment—but it is one of his most complete efforts to take on race in American history and race in contemporary life.

How do you think history will judge some of these speeches after time goes on and the immediate political context they were given in fades away?
I think a lot of his speeches endure because they have a sense of history. The example from the past would be Lincoln's Cooper Union speech. The historian Harold Holzer called it "the speech that made Abraham Lincoln president." And it had a very clear purpose politically of situating Lincoln in the Republican Party in a way that would make him an appealing person to be nominated in 1860. But it is also a whole view of the role of slavery in American history. So Cooper Union lives both for its political effect and for its gloss on the American story. I think the Wright speech will be similar to that. 

As you acknowledge in the introduction to the book, for all of Obama's obvious gifts, he failed to really sell two of his major achievements in his first term—the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. Why do you think that is?
I've been struggling with this for a long time, and I've never come up with a wholly unsatisfactory answer. Obama was, in general, better at broadly thematic speeches than at speeches linked to particular policies. In some ways, he was not as good at selling himself. If you compare Bill Clinton's speech on behalf of Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention to Obama's own speech at that convention, Clinton's speech was better, which Obama himself pretty much acknowledged. 

Obama, somehow, did not dedicate himself in the same way rhetorically to selling particular policies. If you look at a speech like Osawatomie after the fact, he sold his approach to healthcare and the stimulus better in that 2011 speech than he had at any point before. The other thing is, I think he always had certain ambivalences about the stimulus. And while they were fighting for healthcare, they never fixed on one central argument that they thought worked. There was not a consistent pattern—at times they were talking about cost, at times they were talking about coverage, at times they talked about other elements of the healthcare bill.

The other issue is political: By the time the healthcare bill passed, it had been so demonized that Democrats in general made what I think in retrospect—and I thought at the time—was a mistake. They didn't want to talk about it because they'd thought that would hurt them. I think it would have been better to try very comprehensively to sell the thing.


Obama speaks at Newtown, Connecticut, after the shooting there:


Can you think of a good example of a time when Obama did succeed in selling the nation on a certain idea or policy?
He was a very good advocate for stronger laws on guns—which were persuasive to the nation, but insufficient to break through the grip the gun lobby and on Congress. I think the country agreed with him on guns, and he made the case on guns very effectively, but not in a way that could break the logjam in Congress. But some of those gun speeches are really, really powerful. He's not somebody who conveys anger very much, but he did convey anger quite effectively on those occasions, I thought.

Ironically, he got the stimulus and the healthcare bill, even though he didn't sell them very well, but I thought he sold his gun policy very well, and he couldn't get it passed.

Obviously a lot of liberals are not feeling very optimistic right now with Trump's election. What can people learn—either emotionally or intellectually—from reading and listening to these speeches?
One of my very favorite things that Obama talked about a lot was the difference between hope and optimism. He was very insistent that he was not necessarily an optimist. An "optimist," as he defined it in a few speeches, will try to stare reality in the face and see only the good things. Hope requires staring reality in the face, admitting how difficult things might be, and nonetheless retaining the confidence and the will to make change in the face of the biggest obstacles. Hope is a virtue; optimism is a disposition. 

No movement has been successful in the long haul if it couldn't hold onto hope in the face of the most excruciating barriers. That is in a way a religious side to Obama's rhetoric. He would remind people in a lot of his speeches, in our history when progressives—in the broadest sense of that word—were losing the argument, when they felt defeated. He called people to remember that our forbears didn't give up hope, even though things looked fairly hopeless. That's why I think in this coming period a lot of people are going to be turning back to Obama. They may not be very optimistic about the country at the moment, but they need to maintain the hope that they can change it again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pre-order We Are the Change We Seek here.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.