Sunday, March 30, 2008

What Made Obama's Speech Great

By George Lakoff, Open Left. Posted March 26, 2008.

The true power of the speech is that it does what it says. It not only talks about empathy, it creates it.
    We are on the cusp of a new politics in America. It should be dated from March 18, 2008, the date of Barack Obama's landmark speech "A More Perfect Union." The usual pundits have looked mainly at the speech's surface theme: race. They weren't wrong. It was indeed the most important statement about race in recent history.

    But it was much more. It was a general call to a new politics and an outline for what it needs to be. Just as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was about much more than the war dead on that battlefield, so Obama's speech -- widely hailed as in the same ballpark as Lincoln's -- went beyond race to the nature of America, its ideals and its future.

    To get an appreciation for the greatness of Obama's speech, we have to start with its context: What were the problems Obama faced in writing it, and what were the constraints on him?

    He was under severe political attack, both from Republican conservatives and from the Clinton wing of his own party. Here's what he was facing:

    • Racial divisions and identity politics had been injected into the campaign by his opponents and the media. The effect was to position him, as an African-American, as being opposed to the interests of whites and Hispanics.
    • An attack on his and his wife's patriotism.
    • A claim that he was really a Muslim.
    • A repeatedly shown film clip of his long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who had married him and his wife and baptized his daughters, making embarrassing remarks taken as anti-American and anti-Semitic.
    • One of the hallmarks of his campaign has been good judgment on foreign policy; his opponents claimed that his connection to Wright had shown bad judgment.
    • Another hallmark of his campaign has been authenticity, telling the truth. Two of his advisors had made remarks -- one on NAFTA and one on Iraq -- that opponents had twisted to make it seem that he was lying. He had to establish himself as truthful.
    • Another hallmark of his campaign has been values. His opponents had claimed that his values were unknown and that the public didn't know who he was.
    • His opponents had claimed that he could not stand up to strong opposition.
    • He was in the center of an intensely divisive campaign while pressing unity as a major theme.
    • His opponents had claimed that his eloquence was all talk and no action.

    In addition, Sen. Obama faced certain constraints on what he could say:

  • He understands that people vote primarily on the basis of character and how he would govern: on values, authenticity, trust and identity, and only secondarily on fine policy details (See Thinking Points). He could not ignore the problems and hope they would go away. They wouldn't. Since he was being attacked on all of these character and governance issues, he had to confront them all.
  • He had been putting forth a vision of bipartisanship opposite that of Sen. Clinton. In her bipartisanship, she moved to the right, giving up on fundamental values. In his bipartisanship, he understands that "conservatives" and "independents" often share fundamental American values with him. Instead of giving up on his values, he finds those outside his party who share them. His speech had to have such an appeal.
  • The honesty and openness of his declared new politics required him to be consistent with his previous statements.
  • He could not explicitly go negative and still continue to campaign on civility and unity. He could only go positive and evoke implicit negatives.
  • He could neither accept his opponents framing of him, nor argue explicitly against that framing. If he did either, he would just strengthen their frames. He had to impose his own framing, while being true to his values and his campaign themes.
  • He could not go on the defensive; that would just encourage his detractors. He had to show leadership.
  • Though he might have felt frustrated or even angry, leadership demanded that he be his usual calm self, embracing, not attacking, even those who opposed him. He had to be what he was talking about.

Try to imagine being in this position and having to write a speech overnight. And yet he wrote not a speech, but the speech -- one of the greatest ever.

As a linguist, I am tempted to describe the surface features: the intonation, the meter, the grammatical parallelisms, the choice of words. These contribute to eloquence. I'm sure the linguistics community will jump in and do that analysis. Instead, I want to talk about the structure of ideas.

Any framing study begins with communicative framing, the context. Contextual frames carry ideas. Sen. Obama is patriotic, and he had to communicate not only the fact of his patriotism, but also the content of it. And he had to do it in a way that fit unquestionable and shared American values. Where did he give his speech kicking off his Pennsylvania campaign? Not in Scranton or Pittsburgh or Hershey, but in Philadelphia, home of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and at once home of one of America's largest African-American communities. What building was it in? Constitution Hall. How did he appear onstage? Surrounded by flags. He is tall and thin, as were the flagstaffs, which were about the same height. He was visually one with the flag, one with America. No picture of him could be taken without a flag shaped like him, without an identification of man and country.


See more stories tagged with: barack obama, speech, race, framing, linguistics

George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley; senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute; and author of the forthcoming The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st Century Politics with an 18th Century Brain (Viking/Penguin), available June 2, 2008.

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