The Limits of Great Presidential Oratory: James Fallows On Obama--And Beyond

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Jun 20, 2009 at 16:30

If America actually had a punditalkcracy instead of a punditalkcrazy, James Fallows would be as well-known as George Will.  If you had to read just one book about our media and what's wrong with it, his 1996 book, Breaking The News, could arguably be that one book. Which is why I take it seriously when he writes something about Obama, as he did earlier this week in "Belatedly, on the Cairo speech & Obama rhetoric in general". Just as I hoped, it provides an excellent opportunity for clarifying where I stand with respect to Obama.

The thesis is about Obama's "big" speeches, by which Fallows means his Philadelphia speech on race during the campaign plus five more recent ones: the
June 4 Cairo speech on relations with Islam, the May 21 on anti-terrorism strategy, the >May 17 Notre Dame speech on religion and politics, the April 14 speech at Georgetown on economic strategy, and the April 5 Prague speech on reducing nuclear weapons. Here's what Fallows says:

here is a way to think about why Barack Obama's "big" speeches of the past 15 months seem different from normal political rhetoric. It's because they are...

These six -- including an astonishing five of them in an eight-week burst -- were different from normal rhetoric in the following basic way:

Most of the time, "effective" speeches boil down to finding a better, clearer, cleverer, more vivid, or more memorable way to express what people already think.

In contrast, pointing to his Philadelphia speech on race, Fallows says:

What Obama did in that speech is what he has done, or attempted to do, in those subsequent five big speeches as president. Rather than simply reaffirming or reinforcing what much of the public already thinks; and rather than attempting the relatively common political feat of explaining small changes or compromises in policy; he has tried to change the basic way in which we think about large issues. You can look back on his 2004 Democratic convention speech, given before he'd even been elected to the Senate, as a preview of this approach. By 2008, "not Red states or Blue states..." had become a mere catch phrase. In 2004, during the embittered Bush-Kerry campaign, it was something like a new idea. That's what got him such a response in the convention hall (I was there; it was electrifying), and extensions of that approach are what make his big speeches these days seem different from what we generally hear.

I think Fallows is absolutely right about this, and he goes on to describe what he means even more specifically, in a passage I'll quote on the flip.  But at the same time, this helps us focus attention on just what's lacking in Obama, and that can been quite clearly in the current fiasco of his GLBT policy (if, indeed, he can be said to have a GLBT policy.)  

The problem, as I see it, is two-fold: (1) a lack of genuine, substantive follow-through, from rhetoric to action, and (2) a lack of real depth in the change he articulates.  It may well be a "change [in] the basic way in which we think about large issues", but it's a change that's been just beneath the surface for a long time, a change that people have been hungry for.  It's a change in key from major to minor, or the reverse, or maybe even up a half-step--all key-changes that are part of the musician's standard repertoire, if not the politician's.

But it's not as Monty Python would have it, "something completely different."  It's not Frank Zappa changing key and time signature at the same time.  And it's certainly not Charles Ives, playing in two different keys at once, or Harry Partch, playing in just intonation, with 17  43  notes to the octave.  So if Obama hasn't given a major speech on GLBT issues-as some of you are surely already protesting--it's precisely because there is no such latent change on GLBT issues overall, even though there certainly is such a change with regard to their service in the military.

Paul Rosenberg :: The Limits of Great Presidential Oratory: James Fallows On Obama--And Beyond
Before expanding my critique of Obama, let's let Fallows expand his explanation.  Adding greater specificity to the distinction he draws above, Fallows writes:

If political speeches typically sound "hazy," the reason is that most of the the time excess clarity brings risks. As a journalistic or literary writer, your goal is to make your meaning absolutely as clear as it can possibly be. In political rhetoric, most of the time you want to clarify views only to the extent that most people will still agree. (Yes, we all agree on "protecting the environment" and "keeping the nation safe." So you talk about that, not the more controversial specifics.) Obama's big speeches sound unusual because he's often being quite clear (eg, talking about his white grandmother's view of black people) en route to introducing new "frames" or approaches to basic questions.

I'm not saying that all his plans are going to work. I'm not saying that his big set-piece speeches are cliche-free. As argued earlier, often they're not even that "well written," in a fancy-phrasemaking sense. I am saying: there's a reason they seem similar as a group and different from normal political rhetoric. The difference is, they're asking us to change our minds.

What Fallows says in the first paragraph above reflects what Lakoff has said about Obama's framing ability.  And yet, re-reading that speech, I find it difficult to identify any really "new 'frames' or approaches".  Indeed, the fact that Obama is a black man raised by a white grandmother seems significantly more novel than anything he actually has to say after that.  Here is where he speaks of her view of black people, after he first speaks about Reverend Wright:

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America - to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

And yet, despite saying here quite clearly that "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," that is precisely what Obama himself proceeded to advocate further on in this speech, (and what he proceeded to do in his campaign):

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns - this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

In the passage above, not only did Obama use this race speech to stop talking about race, invoking a facile equivalence between black grievances deeply rooted in history, and white grievances often used to justify that same history.  He also justified abandoning talking about race with the excuse of other issues that he has since disappointed on.

Confronted with the Wall Street meltdown, he has used his cross-racial good will to both save and protect "a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed," not to force it to reform. In "a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests," he has drawn on those very same insiders far more than he has drawn on outsiders who took him to be on their side.  And, in pushing more bailouts, while neglecting the plight of those losing their homes, and even state governments trying to keep basic services going, he has continued "economic policies that favor the few over the many," though not quite as blatantly as the Bush Administration before him.

On each of these points, it should be noted, blacks and Latinos have suffered much more intensely than whites have--more mortgages foreclosed per capita, more homes lost, and more state services cut.  The fine rhetorical balance struck in his speech--which does, indeed, have some basis in reality, however much it overlooks the differences--is belied by the staggering racially-based differences in who lost what in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown.

Contrast the above with what Dr. Martin Luther King said 41 years ago, in his "Drum Major Instinct" speech, where he casts white supremacy in the larger context of the "Drum Major Instinct" desire to be special--a desire that he argues can be transformed for good, by seeking to be a "Drum Major" in service to others, in service to peace and justice.  In this larger sense, in his speech King sees the white supremacy of his jailers as part of a larger malady we all must struggle to transform, and thus finds a much more profound commonality than Obama does with his false equivalence of black and white fears and resentments.  And in the real-life drama his speech recalls, he addressed their common plight with uncommon directness:

The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking-calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point-that was the second or third day-to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."

Now that's a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he's superior because his skin is white-and can't hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out. (Amen)

Also unlike Obama, King's actions did not contradict his words.  He gave this speech in the midst of organizing the multi-racial "Poor People's March on Washington," a march he did not live to see.

In short, what this shows is simply the severe limitations of what Obama offers us.  Yes, he wants to change the tone, and yes, he wants us to listen more open-mindedly one to another.  And these are all good things.  But he does not want to fundamentally change anything material at all.  And yet, Fallows clearly highlights something real--Obama is extraordinary by the standards of conventional political discourse, which strongly suggests that he could quite easily put his considerable gifts in service to a much more substantive change in how we think and what we do.

This would not be easy, of course.  Part of Obama's success in reeling off so many "big" speeches is that none of them deeply challenges us in the ways that Martin Luther King did.  They do challenge us to change somewhat, it's true.  But the changes are more a matter of taking lower-profile mainstream ideas and giving them greater prominence.  Consider this passage from an earlier, related piece by Fallows:

...the power of those speeches comes from the quality of their thought -- from the ideas and truths the speaker is trying to grapple with:

In the case of the race speech, the different burdens and resentments Americans of all background held, and why we had to face and work through them. In the nuclear speech, the dangers that remained long after the Cold War had ended, and America's special opportunity and responsibility to find a solution. In the Notre Dame speech, the difficulty of resolving, in an open democracy, differences of moral certainty that are fiercely held on all sides. And so on.

Yet, others have been far bolder in calling for nuclear abolition much more quickly than Obama proposes, including top retired military leaders and establishment politicians such as George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn..  Jesse Jackson has also often spoken insightfully about white resentment as understandable, but with much greater force about how it serves to distract attention from the real source of white working class suffering.  (Although he got relatively few votes, he drew large crowds of Iowa farmers in 1984, 24 years before Obama won the primary there.)  And pro-choice advocates have always recognized the deep moral conflicts surrounding abortion--that's why they're self-identified as "pro-choice" not "pro-abortion."

Similarly, Obama's Cairo speech simply reaffirms the common sense of the non-insane part of the Washington foreign policy establishment--even while clinging to the highly questionable notion of a "good war" in Afghanistan.  This is only transformational in the sense of a heroin addict switching to booze.

In short, Fallows has provided a good explanation for why Obama's "big" speeches strike us as so different. But once we understand why this is so, we also understand why they fall so far short of what is actually needed at this point in time.  Part of the problem is that words are not deeds.  But a deeper problem is that the words themselves do not even call for the sorts of deeds that are needed. Words alone may be inadequate, and yet still call forth the needed action.  So faulting Obama for "merely" speaking misses the point.  The root of the problem is that he does not ask us to think nearly as newly and deeply as we need to.

But in a sense, I think it's even worse than that.

Consider again the lack of any major speech on GLBT issues.  Politically, it's very understandable.  Gay marriage is deeply divisive at a time when other issues, such as economic recovery and national health care, require all the political unity we can muster.  Yet, abortion is also a deeply divisive issue, and yet he spoke openly about it at Notre Dame.  What's more, gays serving openly in the military is not a divisive issue.  Even a majority of Republicans now favor it.

It's clear that attitudes toward the GLBT community are changing, particularly driven by the young.  It's only a matter of time until gay marriage is legalized.  Even if Obama is politically timid, as the other examples suggest, he sure could talk about GLBT issues at least somewhat similarly to how he discussed abortion.  He could talk about the need for trying to listen respectfully to one another.  And he could announce a determined push to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" in accord with overwhelming majority public opinion.

The fact that Obama has not done any of this suggests that his "big" speeches all have much more mundane political purposes that we ought to consider just as much as we consider what makes their rhetoric distinctive.  Put simply, these "big" speeches reflect Obama's own poltical needs.  They are not so much responses to big moral or political questions, as they are attempts at overkill to deal with political problems all at once, and be done with them.

The Philadelphia race speech was clearly recognized as one that Obama had done everything possible to avoid, until the emergence of Reverend Wright made further ducking impossible.  I think it's arguable that the same can be said about all the other "big" speeches as well.  Thus, if we want Obama to give a "big" speech on GLBT issues, then the GLBT community is going to have to turn up the political heat.  And if they do, a "big" speech they may get.  But it will only be the booby prize.  They should--we all should--be aiming for a lot more than that.

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well argued (4.00 / 6)
I like the connection to the Drum Major speech--in some ways, I think it may be King's most important and profound piece of oratory, but it's still far too unknown even today.  It's a major node in linking the psychological, individualist framework of American culture to the structural aspects of power and control.

Of course, this diary still boils down to "hold their feet to the fire" as far as practical action is concerned, so, back to work, I guess.


ps: One caveat on your presentation: Partch's system involved 43 tones to the octave.

Oops! (4.00 / 2)
I know that number for Partch's scale was wrong, I just forgot the exact number (I knew it was a prime), put in "17" as a placeholder, and forgot to look it up when adding my missing links.

On a brighter note, possibly the oldest thing I wrote that's still readily accessible on the web is my 1995 MLK birthday essay, "Martin Luther King - A Different Drum Major".  So I totally concur with view of the importance of that speech.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Exactly (4.00 / 4)
I think it may be King's most important and profound piece of oratory, but it's still far too unknown even today. I think it may be King's most important and profound piece of oratory, but it's still far too unknown even today.

History (written by the victors) has neatly boxed MLK (and the holiday in his name) into a tidy, nonthreatening little box of nothing more and nothing less than "I Have A Dream". It can be no accident that his strong pro-labor and anti-war stances have been all but forgotten because they are never taught.  

[ Parent ]
Another great commentary by you Paul (4.00 / 4)
In What Is To Be Done? Lenin outlines that the change must come from below to the leaders above. Then he threw all that away when he got the German money to buy his 1917 revolution. 1917 was led by the media from above and the masses, who already had those feelings, were pushed to activism.  We may be seeing this in Iran right now and Obama is watching, not engaging, their revolution.

Yes I think he is cautious. I am not but then I am not in a position of political power because of that, and he is. Here is what I think he is doing. I think he is consciously, and partly unconsciously, engaging in a change of consciousness, a shifting of either/or to both/and a long awaited linguistic watershed moment for us Americans.

To change our speech resulting in a subtle and irreversible change in our thinking. I went to Lower Merion (Kobe Bryant's high school) and it was very segregated except for sports. Jews were isollated except for academic excellence, Blacks were in the vocational studies except for an exceptional student here and there (Paul Moses who went to Haverford College), and a I experienced a black beach only section in Ocean City when our sororities went to the shorehouses in June.

I remember thinking it wasn't fair for them to be in the lousiest of beaches. That definition determined by whether the boardwalk was behind the beach or in front of the water where you had to walk through the debris underneath the boardwalk to bathe.

And I remember a story of a Jewish boy who went swimming with his class at the end of the year, and who wasn't allowed to go in the water because he was Jewish and therefore would contaminate it for the others. At home he told his family he didn't want to stay in a country that regarded him that way. He was sent to his uncle in America to live. He lived and his entire family perished in the Holocaust.

I think it takes all kinds and approaches to change the stupid mess we are in. And when you leave either/or behind in your thinking, you enter Einstein's relativity paradigm of both/and and things get very complex and complicated. The way through is no longer at all clear.

The most racist people now are the most authoritarian, the least educated, have little frustration tolerance, and are the most likely to proselytize their opinions as soon as they have them. The loud mouths. The rednecks. (See I have my prejudices too living among them.)

As the TV watchers get used to seeing an articulate, often funny, very intelligent and mainstream American president who has a dark face and a black American wife (carrying the baggage he does not of slavery) it will become a behavior therapy de-sensitization process. I believe we will have 8 years of it non-stop every night on the tube they watch. Their anxiety about his being black will simply subside, without their conscious awareness. It may return (spontaneous recovery) but will continue to be less and less a trigger button for them. He is teaching them to think better, more logically in the way many children learn at the dinner table. I have always thought about the JFK dinner table with father Joe presiding: the competition, the wit, the intelligence, and the competing. This is the ideal way to learn it but with increasing numbers of dysfunctional families, less and less likely to be anything except rare.

Thanks for provoking this response from me. It is as if we are at a cultural dinner table expressing our views on this. And I remember exactly when my racist upbringing (action not rhetoric) came to a screeching halt. It was when a black graduate student peer of mine offered to help me with statistics when I was trembling in fear of failing due to my math phobia. There are racial phobias, (Toots seemed to have that malady) and phobias are tenacious and destructive. People who lived through the last depression were stingy, saving, risk averse, lacked a sense of entrepreneurship, generosity, etc. These psychological attributes were ingrained from a terrible fear of absolute poverty and they carried this baggage all their lives. It was only the post war generation that could step out and imagine a difference. They had been through the war, had gone to other countries, and had a more inclusive world view than their parents.

I love it when (4.00 / 1)
someone mentions Lenin the populist. Do you suppose that some day we'll mention Obama the populist with a similar rolling of the eyes?

Apples and oranges? More like Winesaps and Granny Smiths, if you ask me. Then again, since my hasty departure from the Twentieth Cenury, I've never been quite able to shake all the irony off my shoes.

[ Parent ]
I think Obama will move us closer to one world domination (0.00 / 0)
run by idiots of course.

Have you read Houellebecq? And Bernard-Henri Levy?

[ Parent ]
I don't accept Fallows premise (4.00 / 2)
Fallows writes:
Fine words butter no parsnips. But Fallows writes:

[Obama] has tried to change the basic way in which we think about large issues.

If so, not a lot of 'em. A few "large issues" off the top my head besides DOMA:

America's imperial role?

Executive power?

Single payer?

The financial crisis and the recession? (Here, Obama's rhetoric is particularly egregious for its lack of agency).

NOTE I'm assuming that when Fallows writes "change the basic way" he means change for the better.

I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD.  

More Simply (4.00 / 1)
My point is that basic changes to large issues aren't necessary large changes to large issues.

What's "basic" from a Versailles perspective doesn't seem like much to get excited about to you or me, or most other folks with a reality-based bent.  But there is some sense in using that term, and I'm trying show just what that is, even though it rather underwhelms.  Sort of like the demon Gachnar in the Buffy, The Vampire Slayer episode "Fear Itself".

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Thinking my way through your piece... (4.00 / 4)
1) Obama's race speech sought to redefine Rev Wright's sermons as legitimate -- limited, crippled by the incompleteness of its field of view, but nonetheless arising from a real, honestly experienced, and thus legitimate point of view.  And it set those views alongside those of other Americans, most significantly certain white Americans, whose views on race and politics were limited by misunderstanding and misdirection, but were connected, in however distorted a manner, to valid values and desires and feelings, and were therefore to that extent legitimate.  So the argument it made was to make both black racism, if you like, and white racism, crippled and dangerous but nonetheless in some respect legitimate parts of the American experience.  

And then, most interesting, is his ask:  he asks that we not let either black or white racism derail his presidential campaign.  

There at the end of his speech, that's really all he asks for.  He sez "we can't let this poison everything we do, so how about I get to go on with my presidential campaign?"


If I were going to build an argument here, I'd start by arguing that Obama's asks are not nearly as big or valuable as the powers of motivation he deploys to get us there.  That's apparent in the "Yes We Can" and "Change" lineage too; all of that "no one can deny the power of millions of people calling for change" stuff is actually too true for his comfort, as he builds up that very powerful argument, and then shows that the only call he will lead us towards is his own election.  "Yes We Can" get him elected, and yes we can "Change" administrations, but he is not willing to use that model of political power on, say, citizen lobbying for health care legislation, or climate change legislation.  At least he hasn't deployed that kind of power yet (holding rallies in the home states of wavering senators), and at this point I'd be quite surprised if he ever did.  It's true that the time for that kind of pressure is at the very endgame of the legislative process (probably; I guess the immigration legislation started with a popular movement surrounding it, suggesting that one could actually lead into the legislative process with rallies and etc.)  But given his m.o. I expect he'd only lead popular pressure against legislators if his legislation was on the very threshold of utter collapse -- by which time it will probably be too late.  

Stepping back, it seems to be a pattern that his ask is significantly smaller than the ideas he employs to get us there would suggest.  And more self-interested.


Having just re-read your post, I find that that angle makes more sense to me than the "these aren't really transformational ideas" angle.  I mean, maybe...  that probably ought to be thought of in relative terms (we should not expect candidate/President Obama to speak in ways comparable to movement-leader King, or academic Chomsky, or even retired politician Kissinger), and for a national-office politician and a national-office politician's speeches, they are pretty big ideas, pretty powerfully expressed, which is why we get pieces like Fallows' being written.  Rather, the angle that speaks to me is not that the ideas aren't big enough, but that we are seeing big and persuasive ideas articulated in order to advance small and self-interested goals.  Or at least, small and very particular goals, that Obama has chosen himself.  He doesn't want to unleash a movement that will demand healthcare reform, the way two competing movements demanded immigration reform two years ago.  He wants to get us to elect him, so that he can judiciously manipulate the Senate into giving us healthcare reform, hopefully without ever having to engage in a hail-mary maneuver like public pressure on individual senators.  That would be blunt and imprecise and not optimally effective.  "Yes We Can" trust Obama to execute this perfectly himself.

That's the explanatory structure that makes sense to me.


2) Incidentally, I don't think the "he only does this when he has to" analysis is very fitting.  He did clearly want to avoid talking explicitly about race, from the very beginning of the campaign, and only did so when Wright was about to sink his campaign.  But the argument that he had to give those speeches in Cairo or South Bend or especially the nuclear disarmament speech in Prague is one I'm having trouble imagining.  I think a better model is that when he finds one of his goals is advanced by the deployment of powerful rhetoric, he's happy to do so, but that he just as often passes up the chance at powerful rhetoric (Denver acceptance speech, inauguration speech) when he feels that's more politically apt.  The key is rather (and this should be unsurprising in a politician): it's all about the politics.

I Pretty Much Agree With Everything You Say (4.00 / 1)
except with your sense that you're saying something very different from me.

It's more a matter of differing emphasis, and I think that most songs can be rendered effectively with different beat patterns.

More precisely, your analysis is attuned to the politics involved, and that's perfectly captured in this passage:

There at the end of his speech, that's really all he asks for.  He sez "we can't let this poison everything we do, so how about I get to go on with my presidential campaign?"


If I were going to build an argument here, I'd start by arguing that Obama's asks are not nearly as big or valuable as the powers of motivation he deploys to get us there.

I agree completely, byh the focus in my piece is somewhat different.  I'm focused on why this all seems to be so much more than it actually is, rather than what it accomplishes.  For lack of a better term, call it more of "cultural" than a political take.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
I felt like we were saying something different because I couldn't understand what you were saying, (4.00 / 2)
which is an experience I am not accustomed to.

I was failing to perceive the structure of your argument: why you were saying certain things, and why they were coming after one another in the order that they did.  

Of course, this is probably due in part to having not actually read the Fallows article (skipping your homework invariably leads to looking stupid in class).  If the argument you were responding to emphasized the big-ideaness of Obama's speeches, then that would make the rest of your post make sense: why say "the ideas aren't that big", why compare to King and Kissinger, why note that he hasn't given an GLBT speech (I really could not figure out what that element added to the subject), why argue that LGBT issues are at least as salient as abortion issues, but there has been no speech forthcoming on them because a speech on that subject is not politically useful, and then why conclude that his speeches have largely been born of political necessity (which I argued is not exactly right, in that they're not all political necessity, tightly defined, but they are all born of political utility -- which in the context of your argument is more or less the same thing.)

So, if that is the backdrop, (see, I still haven't done my homework!), then the narrative thrust of your post makes sense to me, and I don't have to puzzle through it as I did.  Because I really could not figure out why you were saying the things you were in the order you did, which as I said, is a weird and unsettling feeling for me.

Anyway, assuming I've guessed at the Fallows argument correctly, then there we go.  

I do find it important and useful to remember that Obama is a politician: a talented and successful one, who we hope has good motives and good judgment, but still definitely a politician.  But then I wasn't in the position of arguing against someone who evidently was claiming he was something other and more.  

Alright, now I have to go read that damn Fallows article, just to see if I'm back on course here or not!  Damn you Paul, I had other shit to do today.  :)

[ Parent ]
You're Right! (4.00 / 1)
Maybe it's more complex than I took it to be.

Maybe we're saying much the same thing from where I stand, but not from where you stand.  For example, your distinction between political necessity and utility (as defined by these examples) arguably has a salience in the most nuts-and-bolts political terms that it doesn't for my purposes.

That's because my view construes Obama as a different sort of actor--one who does have an ideological agenda that can't be factored out of his pragmatic calculations.  Thus, what's necessary for this construct of Obama as I understand him includes both what you would call necessary and the merely utilitarian (again, within the field of the examples we're discussing).  

I suppose one way to describe what I'm trying to say is that we may have different ways of explaining what we're talking about, they don't essentially conflict within the range we're discussing.  They might fundamentally conflict in a larger framework, but in this subset of all things possible, they seem like different ways of getting at the same points.  Again--even though this might not be true from your POV.  

(This is easy for me to conceive, but hard to explain because I'm relying on some mathematical models to guide my intuitive/heuristic sense of how our viewpoints inter-relate.  And just to make things more difficult, they're ones I haven't used regularly in over 30 years.  Sounds like fun, huh?)  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Different sort of actor. (4.00 / 1)

Since I don't know what else to do, I'll try to clarify my use of the terms necessity and utility.  (I don't know that that's needed or helpful, but I'm otherwise stuck.)

So the Cairo speech would be a useful, productive, valuable use of Obama's rhetorical abilities, but not exactly a necessary one.  He could still pass health care legislation without giving a speech in Cairo; he could negotiate a climate protocol with China; he could get re-elected.  That speech helps him deal with some other problems on his plate: counter-terrorism, Israel/Palestine, oil politics.  But he could keep on doing an awful lot of what he wants to do without ever delivering such a speech.  It's useful but not necessary.

Saving his campaign by delivering that race speech was necessary.  It was a time that he had to "go big" and recontextualize Rev Wright in a broader story of American struggles with race, or lose the nomination and the presidency.  His hand was forced into delivering that speech, or doing some other drastic thing with a lower probability of success.

Now, back to Cairo, the calculus of ideological motivation and available resources clearly dictates that he ought to give such a speech.  It is an incredibly low-cost way to achieve some meaningful outcomes in the larger and important issues Over There.  So if the predominate calculus is something like "I want to do everything I can, as seen from within ideological framework XYZ, to help the country and the world", then he would be compelled by that calculus to give the speech in Cairo, and the speech in Philadelphia, and campaign announcement in Springfield, all pretty much equally.  They're all necessary under that calculus, though that speech in Philadelphia still seems to be a little bit more necessary than others.

Alternately, if the calculus is more clearly that of a typical politician -- "I want to be president, and then do whatever I can do from there" -- then speeches that save your political skin are necessary in a way that speeches that ease outstanding world conflicts aren't.  Cairo is an option; acing your nomination speech is not.

Is this helpful at all?  

I do think that Obama is someone with good motives, who was not a politician, who decided to become one, quite possibly according to that first calculus I described.  If I understand you right you think something similar.

While I believe something like that, I still tend to think of him as primarily a politician, and so I adopt a "typical (good guy) politician" operating model for him.

If I've outlined this correctly, and one of us is right, I hope it's you.

(Also, I don't actually think of a bunch of discrete, cafeteria-style "issues" as I've described them here.  I do recognize that moving America vs Islam forward helps the budget, helps global peace, helps human development, helps get him re-elected by pre-empting a terrorist attack, is the obvious right thing to do, etc.  Perhaps I should have stated the difference as being whether power is an office that you first secure and then use, or whether it is a quality that flows from being-doing-the-right-thing.  Like a martial art, when you're doing the right things right, through a mysterious magnification of force you become powerful.  In that case, dealing with American/Islamic tension is absolutely necessary, because it's right.)

[ Parent ]
Okay (4.00 / 1)
Then let me try to explain how I see your view related to mine.  I see it as a combination of different factors that make the space Obama moves in different in our two models.  One factor is that the different issue areas are more tightly linked in my space than they are in yours.  Another factor is that Obama is more tightly identified with his political persona, and a bit less of a disinterested calculatorin my space than in yours.  One last factor is that my space is more calibrated by meaning than yours.

You put all those factors together, and how he moves in one space maps continuously onto how he moves in the other.

It may actually be a bit more complicated than that.  But that's a good start to understanding how I see our descriptions related to one another.

With all those factors meshed together, it no longer makes sense to say the Cairo speech wasn't necessary--in my space, even though it's meaning to say that in yours.  That's because "necessary" has a different functional meaning in the two spaces, given the factors I've ticked off above.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Aha. (4.00 / 2)
Well that was a bit of a letdown.

Not only was Fallows arguing that these Obama speeches contain big ideas that challenge us to change the way we think, but he asserts it, more than actually arguing for it.

After dealing with this post of yours, there was comparatively little meat over there.

On a quick read, the "not red states nor blue states" is the best evidence that any of his speeches have tried to change how Americans think of themselves, and that one was clearly a return to a way that Americans preferred to think of themselves (and indeed, the "red states blue states" conceit was less than four years old at the time!).  It was a great feel-good rhetorical move, although more seriously, his anti-partisanship message was way out of key with the base he was addressing in 2004 and in 2007.  He was actually asking us to think differently than we were at that time, although it was always a great general-election message.

Beyond that though the "Obama is trying to change how we think" argument is pretty thinly evidenced.  I was disappointed in that.  One white grandmother doesn't equal a new way of thinking, as far as I can see.  Explaining some blacks' anger by equating it to some whites' resentment is reasonably valid and politically useful, and did completely recontextualize how a lot of people saw Rev Wright's sermons, but it fits better into the argument we've been discussing here than it does into an argument that Obama habitually tries to change the way we think.

He does "go big" from time to time; I've been saying that since that Philadelphia speech made it plain.  (And I guess it's easy to get caught up in that; me, I'm thrilled that he's able to do it, more than for the content of it.)  But he does it for political reasons, and frequently for political reasons that are not that big themselves.  (In fairness, improving relations with the Islamic world is pretty damn big.)

All of which is okay.  Although it would be nice if he would be a little bolder about it, and do it for political purposes that explicitly benefit the side of right over the side of greed.  Like health care or climate legislation, or a real re-regulation of Wall Street.  If we lose any of those fights without Obama throwing all of his persuasive resources into the mix, OR if we win a 60% victory when his rhetoric might have delivered us an 80% victory, then I am going to be seriously pissed.  

[ Parent ]
Kevin Drum on Obama (0.00 / 0)
Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum recently wrote the following:

This, of course, is Obama's basic modus operandi for everything.  He doesn't feel like he has to react immediately to every provocation.  When he does, his responses are usually measured and sober.  He looks for middle ground.  He's willing to wait for the right time to push the boundaries a little further in the direction of his choosing.

This is sometimes intensely frustrating.  The gay community, for example, is up in arms over his lack of action on issues like DOMA and DADT.  But there shouldn't be any surprise about that.  It was obvious throughout the entire campaign season that this is how he works.  He'll let the military stew over DADT for a while until they basically ask him to change it, rather than the other way around.  It might take longer, but he figures - probably correctly - that the end result will be better for everyone.  Ditto for DOMA, which doesn't yet have the votes in Congress for repeal.

If Drum is correct in his interpretation of Obama, this is a mentality that I find appealing.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

Sure (4.00 / 3)
It looks brilliant to anyone whose ox isn't getting gored.

Too bad about your planet, tho.


"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
The only way this is appealing is if he is being carefully reactive on some fronts (4.00 / 6)
so that he can have a strong focus on his proactive efforts on the most important fronts.  Otherwise he's just being passive, which is no great quality in a leader, particularly a leader with once-in-a-generation congressional majorities and persuasive abilities.

So, if his reticence on the gay agenda is due to his focus and drive on his announced core policy projects, health care and energy&climatechange, then that's fine by me.  He better not fuck up the big ones though.

It should take only one Friedman unit to have a very good idea where this administration is going.  If Copenhagen fails, and/or if health care is very badly watered down, then he is cooked, the majorities may well be cooked, and we are probably cooked along with them.

More alarmingly, he and his buddies in Congress may be able to glide past a major public policy failure (even be lauded as bipartisan heroes!), while screwing the future of the country or world, depending on which of the two projects he fails at.  That is a real bummer of an incentive structure.

[ Parent ]
What qualifies as "fucking up the big ones"... (4.00 / 1)
... if gutting the Fourth Amendment with FISA [cough] Reform, and $700 billion to the banksters NOW NOW NOW with TARP don't qualify?

I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD.  

[ Parent ]
Letting The Planet Fry, Perhaps? (4.00 / 1)
Seems like that would qualify to me.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Yeah, after we get single payer... (4.00 / 1)
.l. we can go on to handle that. (Real labor mobility would really help with green technology....)

I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD.  

[ Parent ]
Obama/McDonald's (0.00 / 0)
Speculating about what Obama could do with his bought-and-paid-for speechwriter rhetoric, always carefully screened in advance and modulated by David Axelrod...

... is like speculating that McDonald's could save the planet with their zillion-dollar advertising budget.

James Fallows is lovin' it...

But it ain't gonna happen.

(And if Obama's fan-club ever bothered to read the speeches that Obama wrote for himself, for example in his run against Bobby Rush in the 2000 Democratic Congressional primary, where Obama got crushed...

Maybe they would finally shut up for one second about the imaginary virtues of their low-concept con-man Messiah, and look around at the damage that fool and his financial puppet-masters have already inflicted on the United States, in only 150 days...

And the $1 billion per hour in give-aways to criminal bankers (seven days per week, 24 hours per day) is just the beginning.)

I agree with you but am trying to stay in denial (4.00 / 1)
Will you please let me! Like millions of others, my mental health depends on it. I cannot stand another 8 years of woeful helplessness! And from the good guy which makes it worse.

BTW the doomer kunstler agrees wih you too.

[ Parent ]
I like JH Kunstler, as you might expect. (0.00 / 0)
And he isn't just a doomer, and his vision of a future of walkable cities connected by railroads is a lot more than a black hole of doom.

But you already know that, booksie, and I'm just noting it here for the record.

[ Parent ]
I put it this way: (4.00 / 1)
Obama doesn't stand for change or responsible governance or a reasoned approach to solving the country's problems or any of that good shit. He stands for the idea of those things.

He differs from previous politicians in that they all pretended to actually represent those good things I mentioned. But Obama makes it explicit that he only represents the idea of those things. Not actual change--but "change you can believe in," the idea that change is possible.

And that's what he's doing in all of these speeches: "Here's a problem, and it's nice to think that we'd be able to solve it, if we actually tried."

The Bush administration was pretty good at symbolic gestures, but they insisted on vigorous action--of a destructive and malicious kind, to be sure, but action nonetheless.

Obama's is a purely symbolic presidency. His administration seeks to act as little as possible, except when necessary to preserve the status quo (for which the administration has fought vigorously). He seeks a bipartisan consensus in the exact middle of every issue, which is, in effect, pure stasis. In lieu of action, symbolism and theater have been elevated to a degree unseen even in the previous administration.

So this is what we now have, until the powers that be see their chance to install another Republican in office who will resume the pattern of vigorous, destructive actions we saw from Bush.

The ball is in Congress's court (0.00 / 0)
Intentional or not, what Obama is providing is a space for Congress to reassert the power of the legislative branch relative to the executive.  This is actually something that I approve of.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
But, Of Course, NOT Its Oversight Function (4.00 / 1)
Details, details....

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Meta! (0.00 / 0)
Always productive!  

I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD.  

[ Parent ]
I keep saying the Obamas are petit bourgeois according to Marx's definitions (4.00 / 1)
They raise their children that way, she dresses that way, they garden that way, etc. We cannot expect radical change when both put everything they could get their hands on to get there. They are not going to upset the bucket of water. JFK et al were raised to do what they tried to do. FDR ate his baby cereal with his silver spoon too as did Howard Dean. Those 3 were not trying to get there, nor to stay there, but to change it. Only when you are born in that do you understand its liabilities and destructiveness to your true self.

We now have a black movie star par excellence.

[ Parent ]
Mmmm (0.00 / 0)
MLK wasn't born there, but he wanted to change it. WEB DuBois went through his "talented tenth" phase, and died a Communist.

I agree with your general point.  But it's playing the odds, not dictating certainty.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Your examples weren't presidents or running (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]
And speaking of James Fallows... (0.00 / 0)
... one of my commenters, to my embarassment, reminds me of Fallows' stellar work on Al Gore. Ick.

I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD.  

Better than television (4.00 / 3)
This is really a wonderful post, and the comments thread following it is even better. It amazes me how anybody who finds this going on in their computer could ever turn on a television set again.

As I see it, our difficulty is that Obama not only talks like us, but he's often even better at it than we are. Judging by his acts, though, we're pretty sure that he doesn't mean it. This is a problem for us because we're the kind of people who've long been used to judging a person's sincerity by the evidence, in his rhetoric, of the depth of his thinking. When we can't -- and in Obama's case, clearly we can't -- it's not only his psychology which becomes an object of doubt, but our own as well. This is really serious for intellectual types, because it actually does seem to be a novus ordo seclorum -- just not the one that we wanted, and not one we feel able to judge with our usual confidence.

If I could rate your comment higher I would have - (4.00 / 1)
This especially:
This is a problem for us because we're the kind of people who've long been used to judging a person's sincerity by the evidence, in his rhetoric, of the depth of his thinking. When we can't -- and in Obama's case, clearly we can't -- it's not only his psychology which becomes an object of doubt, but our own as well. This is really serious for intellectual types, because it actually does seem to be a novus ordo seclorum -- just not the one that we wanted, and not one we feel able to judge with our usual confidence.

What motivates him? I confess, I cannot figure him out....where is his passion in the public service sphere ( a la Al Gore and climate change and Ted Kennedy and heath care and for the other side of the dial - the GOP pols: their passionate defense of the GOP brand as examples)- what did he put himself through this campaign for if not to effect something in a meaningful way?

All for bipartisanship and a 'middle way consensus'?

Not good enough for the times we live in, the mandate he was given, the job he holds.

Someone used the word passive in a comment upthread.....

Passive indeed and that's a shame.

[ Parent ]
He's "Arrived" (4.00 / 1)
Could it just be that simple?

I'm beginning to have the gnawing feeling it is.

I'm beginning to be haunted by the old Peggy Lee song, "Is That All There Is?"

And I'm really not a Peggy Lee fan.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
So that's what's the matter with you! (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]
Matter? (4.00 / 1)
My parents exposed me to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald first.  Peggy Lee never had a chance.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Why is a good question so I am thinking why. (0.00 / 0)
Maybe he is playing it like jazz.

A new paradigm is required but none of us know what that would be. And probably he does not either. Things are moving very very fast right now.

His wait and see with Iran is excellent. Have any of you seen the incomparable Persepolis?

[ Parent ]
Precisely! (4.00 / 1)
I had a half-formed idea for doing a post about Obama and our problematic relationship with him at the season's end of Dollhouse, titled "The Simulacra", after the Philip K. Dick book and his use of the device in other stories as well.

Here's the first few paragraphs of the "plot summary" from Wikipedia:

Set in the middle of the twenty-first century, The Simulacra is the story of several protagonists within the United States of Europe and America (USEA), formed by the merger of (West) Germany and the United States, where the whole government is a fraud and the President ('Der Alte' - Old Man) is an android. As well as the USEA, other global superpowers are the French Empire, People's Republic of China and Free (Black) Africa. There is some mention of a World War Three, which may have involved some tactical nuclear weapons, and a possibility that the Soviet Union exists. Communism still exists, but Poland has become its global centre of authority, with its administrative centre now based in Warsaw.

Society is stratified into 'Ges' (German Geheimnisträger, "bearers of the secret" (the elite)) and 'Bes' (German Befehlsträger, "implementers of instruction" (professional and artisanal)) classes, and there is conspicuous consolidation of political and broadcast media power. The Democratic and Republican Parties merged into a single party, the 'Democrat-Republican Party' and the 'United Triadic Network' presumably resulted from an amalgamation of NBC, CBS and ABC.

In addition, actual political power has devolved to a permanent First Lady, Nicole Thibodeaux, whose consorts are a series of male presidents - die Alten. Although the current 'der Alte,' Rudi Kalbfleisch, is a simulacrum/android, Nicole is human (although 'she' died several decades ago, her role has been portrayed by four consecutive actors, and the latest is Kate Rupert). This is a Geheimnis (secret), and insider possession of this secret is enough to insure elite membership through conferral of Ges status.

He actually has other stories in which simuilacrum play a more active role.  But this is such a doozy of a cyberpunk precursor, I just couldn't resist quoting a few paragraphs.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
An unnatural genius (0.00 / 0)
I don't know whether it the power of his (dark) imagination, or the awkwardness of his writing, but when I read Dick -- and I read a lot of him when I was in my twenties -- I always somehow felt trapped in each book, as though I wouldn't actually wake up when I put it down.

That it actually turned out that way still surprises me. The older I get, the less familiar things seem to be. It isn't the novelty of things which are really new, like iPhones and credit default swaps, it's all the varieties of man-being-wolf-to-man which I never noticed when I was younger. They may not be new, exactly, but they're newly alienating, and I have to say that it's odd to be more alienated now than when I was in my twenties, especially since I was a very alienated young man -- earnest, but not convinced that people in authority didn't all have some sort of clockwork inside them.

Maybe Dick knew something after all. People who are slightly, but not greatly out of order often do.

[ Parent ]
Oh oh someone in my karass (0.00 / 0)
Freud: Man hunts down like wolves those who only wish to do him good-anyway close to that. (I just thought of his patient the Wolfman and his painting of the wolves in the tree outside his bedroom window.) That's exactly how he felt in his phobia, that he was being hunted down by wolves and that is what happened to him all his life. Commies, Nazis, and poverty. And he had been a prince.

And H.P.Lovecraft and his marvelous imagination and wonderful stories that keep predicting the future. The same with Thomas  in The White Hotel with the letter/poem in blank verse to Freud.

Personal aside: Have you seen those new clouds that boil and roil with ominous, evil intent? Lovecraft described them from his dreams and imagination all those years ago and now, here they are!

The masses of people are conditioned by their culture in its parenting and education. Alice Miller if only you were blogging now.

I don't really see Obama as being able to stop it all as it is going downhill now. It is not a political solution and in that I agree with the right wingers about last days. Toynbee is too very clear about the symptoms of disintegration as is BHL and Houellebecq in his novels.

But we might get the Universal State out of him and some calm for a hundred years or so. Our Augustus.

[ Parent ]

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