President Obama’s public remarks revealed his unshakable faith in the unity of the American people
By James Santel
April 28, 2017
We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama, edited by E.J. Dionne Jr. and Joy-Ann Reid, Bloomsbury, 355 pp., $25
It is a curious fact of our time that during eight years in which our nation’s media culture became more fragmented, our political climate grew more hostile and mistrustful, and 140 characters became the basic unit of the American attention span, the United States was governed by a president whose greatest asset as a leader was his gift for oratory. As a genre, the presidential speech presumes a broad and attentive audience. It proceeds from the premise that the speaker enjoys a certain amount of authority and legitimacy by virtue of the office. It is, in other words, a means of political communication apparently ill-suited to our clamorous, disjointed, and distracted culture. The election of Donald Trump–a Twitter-addicted former reality TV host whose favorite modifier is “very”–suggests the depths to which oratory has fallen in the public’s estimation. And yet for a variety of reasons–fond memories of FDR and JFK at the rostrum, the evergreen popularity of The West Wing, Americans’ near-religious reverence for the office of the presidency (if not for the people who occupy it)–the transformative speech remains a powerful trope of American politics.
Throughout his political career, Barack Obama both benefited from and contributed to the enduring American appetite for inspiring presidential rhetoric. A strong case can be made that Obama was elevated to office largely on the strength and beauty of his speeches, which counterbalanced a thin legislative record and provided a welcome contrast to the stilted, slightly puzzled style of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama’s facility with words didn’t just far outstrip the abilities of his contemporaries, both within the United States and around the world. It also rivaled that of the best-known orators of modern times, figures like Franklin Roosevelt, the Kennedy brothers, Ronald Reagan, Mario Cuomo, and Václav Havel. Obama’s record, like theirs, cannot be judged by his words alone. But the extent to which he staked his reputation on oratory, as well as the frequency with which he turned to speeches at vital moments in his presidency, means that any consideration of his legacy demands a careful examination of his rhetoric.
A new collection of Obama’s speeches, We Are the Change We Seek, edited by the political commentators E.J. Dionne and Joy-Ann Reid, offers a useful starting point. It has been assembled capably, if perhaps a bit hastily. (The lack of contextual footnotes is vexing, for example.) We Are the Change We Seek includes 27 of Obama’s speeches, some delivered more than a decade ago, some as recently as this year. What stands out is Obama’s unwavering commitment to the story of the United States as a nation of shared hopes and common aspirations. His speeches display a deep faith in the underlying unity of the American people–a faith he never stopped professing, even as the country he governed offered ample cause for doubt.
Like all good orators, Obama was a storyteller. Among his favorite stories was his own: how the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas rose to become a U.S. Senator. That background opens the speech that made him a national figure, the Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. After talking about his parents and grandparents, he said, “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story.”
Obama uses his autobiography to argue that his unconventional background did not place him at odds with the American experience, but made him emblematic of it. That case required Obama to offer a particular reading of American history, which goes something like this: Our shared commitment to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the principles set forth in the Constitution has always been more powerful than our divisions and disagreements, allowing our country to slowly “perfect” itself over time (to use a favorite Obama verb). It is a story of steady change and patient progress, of obstacles overcome and common ground discovered, a story in which all people are given equal attention and credit. In it, racism and prejudice are not defining features of the American character, but blemishes upon it, historical aberrations that we have slowly corrected over time. Above all, it is a story that, in one way or another, has always made room for everyone.
Obama told this story in his famous “Yes, we can” speech, delivered after his defeat in the New Hampshire primary in January of 2008, a speech remembered especially for its peroration:
For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. …
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
This survey of American history deftly smooths the traumas and conflicts of our past, positing a shared optimism that unites groups historically at odds with one another: those pioneers, for instance, carried slavery westward. But here, slaves and settlers are placed on the same rhetorical plane, both of them part of an ensemble of American dreamers, all of them singing a chorus of “Yes, we can.” It is an appealing vision, but in all that it elides, it is deeply problematic.
Obama offers a similar catalog in one of his most poetic speeches, his remarks in 2015 commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama. In New Hampshire, Obama had united disparate historical groups by giving them a shared refrain. In Selma, he went a step further, explicitly inviting his audience to identify themselves with a diverse cross-section of American figures:
We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar … That’s our spirit. That’s who we are.
We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some. And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That is our character.
We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free–Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.
We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.
We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent. And we’re the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.
There is much to admire in this passage–the nods to Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, the acknowledgement that minorities have fought overseas for rights they were denied at home. But again, victims are placed alongside victimizers, and real traumas–Indian removal, environmental degradation, exploitation of Chinese workers, lynching–are subsumed to Obama’s need to assure us of our common narrative.
In particular, his addresses rarely make clear that specific Americans with specific attitudes were responsible for these evils. In Selma, Obama reminds his audience that “many in power condemned rather than praised [the marchers].” This is a refreshing bit of honesty in a country that prefers to forget the radicalism of the civil rights movement. As he goes into more detail, however, Obama seeks the safety of the passive voice: “Back then, they were called Communists, or half-breeds, or outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse–they were called everything but the name their parents gave them.” The effect is to diffuse responsibility for America’s long history of injustice. Or, as Ta-Nehisi Coates recently put it, “Obama appealed to a belief in innocence–in particular a white innocence–that ascribed the country’s historical errors more to misunderstanding and the work of a small cabal than to any deliberate malevolence or widespread racism. America was good. America was great.”
Espousing America’s greatness is the president’s job, and Obama, as the first African American to hold the office, would have paid an especially high price for sustained critiques of American injustice. As Coates makes clear, one of the cruel ironies of the Obama presidency is that precisely because Obama was a black man he had to sidestep examinations of the deep strain of racism in American history. Indeed, given the prominence and potency of that strain, it’s something of a marvel that he addressed race as often and as successfully as he did.
What’s more, Obama’s story of American unity was effective, as I can attest. As a white man who turned 18 shortly before the 2008 election, I was drawn to Obama for his youth, intelligence, and opposition to the Iraq War. But looking back, I understand that I was also attracted to him because he was a black man who spoke of America’s fundamental goodness. Obama represented exciting new leadership for the future. But he also seemed to offer a reassuring answer to the uglier eras of America’s past, describing them as chapters in a larger story of steadily expanding equality–a story that logically culminated in his election to the highest office in the land. If I didn’t quite buy the claims that Obama’s election would usher in a “post-racial” epoch–a notion Obama himself was always quick to dismiss–I felt certain it would represent a new high-water mark in American democracy which, once we had passed, we could never sink beneath again.
Even more exciting was what Obama’s candidacy seemed to promise about the future of politics in the United States: that it would disappear, a kind of domestic unfolding of what Francis Fukuyama predicted in The End of History and the Last Man. Again, this interpretation was encouraged by Obama’s version of American history. As he told it, the moments emblematic of the American character–the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments; the women’s rights and civil rights movements; the New Deal and the Great Society–were instances in which Americans came together to expand the meaning of liberty and justice. His speeches cast these actions not as the triumph of liberal politics, as the victory of one viewpoint over the other, but as the result of our shared values, never mind how deeply or even violently we have disagreed over the meaning of those values throughout history. Obama’s rhetoric suggested that if we simply followed our instincts and stayed true to our principles, liberalism would reign triumphant, and all Americans would recognize this development as a blessing.
His speeches never totally relinquished that hope. His commitment to American unity left him no other choice. The realities of governing left their mark on Obama, but the candidate who downplayed the existence of liberal and conservative Americas was always visible beneath the seasoned president. Even as the Senate minority leader openly declared that his top priority was making Obama a one-term president; even when a Republican congressman accused Obama of lying during a speech to a joint session of Congress; even as the opposition did nothing to discourage right-wing lies about Obama’s citizenship–in the midst of all of this, Obama remained determined to presume, at least rhetorically, the good faith and common aspirations of his opponents. When discussing the opponents of universal health care, saner gun laws, comprehensive immigration reform, he deployed vague labels like “those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes,” or “a chorus of cynics,” or “those who tell us we can’t,” suggesting a small, isolated group located outside his American story of “Yes, we can,” even as Republican lawmakers stubbornly said, “No, you can’t.”
Even Obama in his more combative moods–during his 2011 speech on economic inequality at Osawatomie, Kansas, for instance–hardly drew lines in the sand, lest he disprove his own argument that we can move beyond partisanship. The first task of his speeches was always to convince Americans that they were in basic agreement on the ends of government, long after the GOP’s actions had made clear that this simply was not true. Obama often talked of politics as requiring compromise. “The point is, you need allies in a democracy,” he told graduates at Howard University’s commencement last year.
But what happens when those you would court as your allies cast themselves as your enemies? What happens when your opponents not only disagree with you, but harbor a completely different understanding of America’s founding principles? What happens when they not only challenge you, but question your legitimacy? What happens when they flock to a leader who calls into question the very pillars of democracy itself: a free press, the rule of law, and an educated citizenry?
Nearly 10 years after I first voted for Obama, I took a job in his administration, serving as a speechwriter at the Department of Justice for the last 15 months of his presidency. Because Obama was the dominant political figure of my adolescence and young adulthood, and because I was articulating his administration’s policies, I often emulated his themes and cadences. I described American history as the slow but steady realization of our founding promises. I drew a thread from the white minutemen of Lexington to the black marchers at Selma to the gay rioters at Stonewall. I argued that the ideals uniting us are stronger than the issues dividing us. I took immense pride in working for a president I admired. And I took great satisfaction in writing speeches that, like his, addressed what I believed to be the better impulses of the American people.
Toward the end of last summer, however, the Obama vision of unity began to sound a bit tired to my ears. This had a little to do with his being a second term president in the age of 24-hour media, and a lot to do with the rise of Donald Trump.
In response to Trump’s many unconstitutional proposals, Obama often deployed one of his favorite lines: “That’s not who we are.” But the scenes from Trump’s rallies suggested that to a not-insignificant number of Americans, such plans were perfectly in tune with who we are. Indeed, they were the steps necessary to Make America Great Again. Contrasted with raucous crowds chanting, “Build a wall–kill them all!” and “Lock her up!” Obama’s vocabulary of unity and common decency felt unusually wishful, a thin reply to a newly vocal ethnic nationalism. Liberalism, as championed by Obama, could succeed without a fight. But thanks to Donald Trump, a fight had become unavoidable.
As his tenure drew to a close, the president himself began to nod to the limits of his vision. His final speeches sounded notes of uncharacteristic somberness. In his final State of the Union (not included in this collection), Obama called increasing partisan rancor “one of the few regrets of my presidency.” At the memorial service for five Dallas police officers killed last summer, he said, “I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change. I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.” And in his valedictory to the United Nations—a kind of closing argument on behalf of the postwar international order–he admitted, with rare frankness, the possibility of failure:
Let me conclude by saying that I recognize history tells a different story than the one that I’ve talked about here today. There’s a much darker and more cynical view of history that we can adopt. Human beings are too often motivated by greed and by power. Big countries for most of history have pushed smaller ones around. Tribes and ethnic groups and nation states have very often found it most convenient to define themselves by what they hate and not just those ideas that bind them together. … Perhaps that’s our fate.
Obama the orator was always careful to acknowledge the work that remained. But the passage above is more than just a cursory note of realism. It is a meditation on history as a tragic cycle, rather than an arc, steadily bending toward justice. Obama ends on a more uplifting note, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and praising young Americans who are “unconstrained by old habits and old conventions.” But for one of the few times in his presidency–and the only time in this collection–he evokes the void, which casts long shadow over his hopeful words.
On January 10, Obama delivered his farewell address in Chicago. As usual, the speech was exceptionally well crafted. It included moving tributes to Obama’s wife, children, and staff. It recounted eight years of accomplishments. And it called on Americans to roll up their sleeves for the work ahead:
[Democracy] needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.
Characteristically, Obama’s exhortation was grounded in faith:
Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America—and in Americans—will be confirmed.
Mine sure has been.
Ten days later, as Obama looked on, Donald Trump took the oath of office, delivering an Inaugural Address memorable for its bleak portrait of “American carnage.” The following day, the Women’s March attracted hundreds of thousands to Washington, D.C., to protest the new administration. The demonstrations against Trumpism have continued in the months since: in airports, on Capitol Hill, outside the White House. In one sense, the nascent signs of a progressive awakening seem to vindicate the faith in Americans that Obama so consistently professed. But they are also reminders of the great unfulfilled hope of his presidency. Eight years after he stood in front of the Capitol and declared that “we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” the battle lines he sought to erase have never been clearer.
James Santel served as a speechwriter in the Department of Justice from 2015 to 2017. His essay “Kodachrome Eden” appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of the Scholar.