There is little doubt that Barack Obama's skills as a speaker and speechwriter played a significant role in his amazing rise and in his victory on Nov. 4, barely four years after a keynote speech that lit up the Democratic convention and brought him to national attention. John Murphy is a professor of communication who has spent most of his career studying presidential rhetoric, writing extensively about John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, among others. Murphy was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Barack Obama's speechmaking brought him early attention and large crowds, but opponents then sought to use it against him, implying he was all show and little substance. What were they missing or underestimating in that criticism?
The presidency requires rhetoric; speechmaking is an important part of the job. When presidents seek to pass legislation, calm markets, defend regulations, or mark important moments, they use public speech. Rhetorical skill is something we should value in a candidate, not dismiss. Senator Obama's rhetorical skills allowed him to appear presidential - he spoke as presidents spoke - and he set the campaign agenda. Change, as opposed to competence and experience, became the primary standard for the election and that ground is favorable to him. You always want to fight a campaign on your own terms.
Anticipating the election result and the shift in power and ideology it might represent, some commentators have made comparisons to 1980 and Ronald Reagan. How are Reagan and Obama similar, and how different, in the way they use American history, myths and themes to promote their respective ideas?
Both Obama and Reagan like national narratives. But President Reagan told the story of an American ideal from its birth: we were failing in 1980-81 because we had departed from the wisdom of the founders and now must return to those values. Senator Obama, by contrast, tells the story of an America rich in potential: we must continue to grow into those values and expand their reach to all people. Like Lincoln at Gettysburg, Obama sees us as dedicated to a proposition that all men are created equal and each generation struggles to make those words real. So, for Reagan it's a return to the past; for Obama, it's a reach for the future.
How do his rhetorical abilities compare with previous, similarly gifted presidents, such as Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton?
Senator Obama strikes me as drawing powerfully from President Kennedy and from civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King. Like them, Obama is a formal orator. He gives speeches, not pseudo-conversations a la Reagan. Obama loves balance and rhythm in his prose style, often references great American documents as Kennedy and King did - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution. Obama argues from accepted classic liberal premises, such as all men are created equal, and emphasizes the role of time: now is the time, one week to go, history teaches us. All three men often refer to the role of history. Clinton is less formal, more of a jazz musician. He picks up a theme and amplifies it, repeats it in different ways. Obama sometimes does that, but not often. He likes formal, prepared texts and sticks to them much more than Clinton does.
Some other presidents, such as Eisenhower and Carter, do not have reputations as great speechmakers, so it can seem that having superior skills in that area is not essential for the job. Is that true, or is something missing from that impression?
Most presidents are, in fact, good at speechmaking. Many presidents like language, even those we don't think of as eloquent. Ulysses Grant wrote probably the best memoir of any American general or president, Dwight Eisenhower was a speechwriter for Douglas MacArthur and others early in his military career, and Jimmy Carter is the bestselling author of many, many nicely written books. Rhetoric allows presidents to do their work - to advocate for their programs, to justify their actions, to commemorate the nation's heritage. Presidents act in language.