Friday, January 4, 2008

Obama Wows Iowa (and America?)

Although I've been approaching Barack Obama's prospects with a hopeful but cautious detachment the last couple of months, last night's victory in Iowa seems too momentous (whether he ultimately wins or loses the nomination) to not be dwelled upon for a while. In particular, the one aspect of Obama that I personally find the most striking (maybe it's the ex-debater in me) is his amazing gift for always finding a way to maximize the potency of his speeches.

Even more than his strong, clear voice, the style in which he talks (see his Iowa victory speech below) is filled with classic and extremely effective rhetorical flourishes. Each paragraph seems to follow a pattern of "loud statement...louder statement...POWERFUL STATEMENT," followed by a quickly spoken, medium voiced, applause-creating closing line, much like he was a preacher giving a sermon. There are times when I half- expect him to end his paragraphs with "can I get an amen!" I was trying to think of other viable presidential candidates that use this style (and weren't actual reverends like Jesse Jackson) and the closest I could think of was that this is how I imagine William Jennings Bryan must have been when he ran for president a 100-odd years ago (though let's hope things turn out better for Obama).

Also, he also seems to have an innate ability to ride the wave of the crowd, repeating his opening words of "They said..." again and again in the speech below until everyone finally calmed down enough for him to continue. Somehow, the effect of all this is that his speeches feel serious and professional without seeming rehearsed. Check out John Dickerson's excellent article in Slate for more examples of Obama's gifts in this regard (especially the part where he says "I can't hear you!" to a bunch of college students and cups his hand to his ear, Hulk Hogan style). The overall effect creates an incredibly positive impression and makes him easily the most gifted speaker on the campaign trail since Clinton in '92.

And, just in case you've never seen it, here is part one of his star-making speech from the 2004 DNC...

Although I'll wait at least until the New Hampshire primary is over to get too excited, there's no question that the entire presidential race is lifted up and more dignified when it features powerful and charming speakers like Obama and even, in a different sort of way, Mike Huckabee. If the race somehow came down to the two of them, those would have to be the most entertaining presidential debates of all time, right?


Todd said...

Great post Josh, I particularly enjoyed the Hulk Hogan reference. As you know, I am extremely excited, giddy almost, about this campaign so far. Although are you worried at all that if the race gets split so far left/right as it would be in an Obama/Huckabee standoff that someone like your Mayor Bloomberg might enter as an independent?

Josh said...

Not especially, for three reasons:

1. If Obama actually wins the nomination, he's going to be a juggernaut and very difficult to attack. I'm telling you, people are going to be terrified to go too much on the offensive against a candidate like Obama. Nobody wants to be in the position of attacking a black candidate, as it's far too easy for people to pin the "racism" label on you if you don't step carefully in your criticism (i.e. Harold Ford in the Tennessee Senate race last year, though, alas, he still lost). Beyond that, he seems to have the kind of personality that can actually get the undecideds, independents, and college students to care enough to physically get out there and cast a vote. I think he is without question the strongest candidate the Democrats can put out there.

2. I still don't think Huckabee will win the GOP nomination. I think his lack of money, name recognition, and high-level Party support are going to catch up with him fast (which is already happening). McCain looks like the one to beat, which would be pretty scary if he didn't have the Iraq war albatross around his neck. Nah, screw it, he's still a scary candidate.

3. I actually like Bloomberg and it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if he won anyway. Socially, he's definitely on the left, and economically it's pretty hard to argue with the monetary policy of a self-made billionaire. Certainly, you'd have to be smarter than me to do so.