The larger context is that the spoken word does not have an easy go of it in our culture. Part of us, perhaps after being cautioned about Hitler and other demagogues, doesn’t trust it. Some of us are scornful. “Oh, he is eloquent,” an exasperated John McCain complained while aimlessly roaming the stage during the presidential debates. “There he goes again.”
Of course, there are lots of words spoken in the classrooms and lecture halls of schools and universities, from the pulpits of churches. But it is rarely oratory, the call that soars and infects, inspires and moves. When I was a child, Canadian politics had John Diefenbaker, whose gift for the platform often descended into a harangue. So much of our political oratory falls short: the mangled syntax of George W. Bush or Jean Chrétien; the lectures of Stephen Harper; the blatant falsehoods that poor Colin Powell had to deliver to the United Nations in his argument to invade Iraq.
As for Obama, people are quick to point out that his words and everything else possibly raised expectations too high. Obama (maybe like Jesus) allowed the public to invest him with whatever they most wanted and needed, and they’d inevitably be let down. Reid finds Obama “most alive, most vibrant when given an opportunity to inspire others to the possibilities of what government can accomplish for people. He has found a way to embody these performative leadership skills when he speaks, which permits listeners to see him, not as a mere manager, but as a leader.”
But as with great orators before him, the issue is perhaps not what he can do but how he makes his listeners believe in what they can do. Bailey points out that “People, deep down inside, want the most honourable and noble aspirations of their souls to be animated. That doesn’t necessarily mean that their behaviour, attitudes and lifestyle will change to follow suit. But it does mean that many will host that possibility because of someone whose integrity, character, vision, faith, intellect and commitment has been conveyed in a substantive and inspiring way.”
Barack Obama’s real gift is to make even the most jaundiced and cynical of us want to shout, “Yes We Can!”