Remember the “Yes We Can” song? It was 2008, and Barack Obama had just lost the New Hampshire Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton. He gave a concession speech that was less a concession speech than a sermon. Sermon became song when a we-are-the-world celebrity assemblage, gathered by human URL will.i.am, sang “Yes we can” to a camera in unctuous, earnest unison over simple chords. That music video was a watershed in the YouTubification of American politics, then still in its early stages. I found it embarrassing at the time, even with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Herbie Hancock in the mix. Revisiting that video now is a harrowing experience. It is electrically unwatchable.
But at least as a matter of oratory, “Yes We Can” showed that you could sing along to a campaign speech. Obama breathed new life into the form. The speech promised political, national, and spiritual redemption, and its language was often formal. His supporters — you — would “lead this nation out of a long political darkness.” A “chorus of cynics” may tell us we cannot succeed, and that chorus will “only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come.” But listen — for beneath that loudness and dissonance, you’ll hear the whispers of that truer American story: “Yes we can.” It was “whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights.” It became a song for “pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.” Wait — did some of those yes-we-can pioneers own slaves and kill Indians? Probably! But in the “unlikely story that is America,” darkness gives way to light.
To take stock of Obama’s speeches is to be overwhelmed by the prosaic demands of presidential oratory. A modern President makes thousands of speeches, and the text of every one of them is posted to the White House website. Some occasions are monumental, and the juxtaposition of monumental occasions can be dizzying: one day you’re in Cairo announcing a new era of American relations with the Islamic world, the next you’re speaking in front of Buchenwald alongside Angela Merkel and Elie Wiesel. Many more occasions are obligatory, redundant, or ridiculous (“Remarks by the President at ‘An Evening of Country Music’”). State of the Union slogs, speeches to troops on surprise visits to Afghanistan, hollow exhortations to labor unions, self-deprecations and amateur stand-up at White House Correspondents’ dinners, toasts, eulogies, Weekly Addresses. The Weekly Addresses are descendants of Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, now delivered on YouTube to an indifferent public. It is an immense corpus of grandeur and fluff.
Warren G. Harding inaugurated the profession of presidential speechwriter in 1921, paying a newspaperman named Judson C. Welliver for words like normalcy. I imagine today’s speechwriters before a diplomatic occasion, Googling inspirational quotes from the major writer of whatever country the President has to address. (Ibsen? Ibsen!) Then they pump the remarks through a teleprompter. This marvelous invention from the 1950s creates a veneer of casualness and intimacy with the audience. It lets you pretend you aren’t reading. But it’s imperfect: in teleprompted speeches delivered straight to a camera, the viewer can still see the speaker’s eyes moving across the text. The effect is slight but creepy.
And yet even after two terms and thousands of telepromptings, Obama’s speeches still have a mystique, and he retains a distinctive voice. Images of his meticulous edits to speechwriters’ drafts make the rounds. Some speeches are too important to be delegated: he has to write them himself. This is what he told Michael Lewis in an interview, and his speechwriters say the same thing. The New York Times reports that Obama prefers to write these speeches at night, with a lonely legal pad and an austere snack of seven lightly salted almonds. These orations come to us as the lucubrations of a solitary wise man, grappling with American history, with race, with fate and freedom. They suggest writerliness.
Consider a classic Obama speech structure. There are those who think X, and there are those who think Y. Both X and Y have rich histories and sympathetic spokesmen. But the acrimonies of the past have calcified the X and Y perspectives. No wonder some have sunk into cynicism or despair. We could keep spinning those same wheels. [Pause.] Or we could see that now is the moment to reach toward Z, because our story — my story — shows the possibility of change. To embrace Z is not to betray X or Y, but rather to fulfill and pay homage to X and Y even as we transcend them. At our best, we have risen to such heights before. Let me close with an anecdote, small in scale but deep in import, of people reaching across a divide to affirm their common humanity.
The most celebrated speech of this type is “A More Perfect Union,” the so-called speech on race from March 2008. For a while, it was known simply as The Speech. During the Democratic primary, all eyes turned to Obama’s pastor in Chicago, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose fiery sermons had flayed America for its sins. “God damn America!” Wright had shouted from the pulpit, and all of Obama’s opponents — from Hillary Clinton to Dick Cheney — pretended to be deeply offended, even though Wright was doing what great American ministers have done since Cotton Mather. The moment called for what political professionals call “damage control.”
X was Wright. Y was Obama’s white, good-hearted, but sometimes racist grandmother. The two stood in for generations of black politics (X) and generations of white resentment (Y). The closing anecdote was about a white woman named Ashley. She had faced hard times but worked to improve the lives of others, and that’s what brought her to Obama’s campaign. Her story struck a chord with an elderly black man also working for Obama’s campaign, who said, when asked why he was there, “I’m here because of Ashley.” Ashley and the unnamed black man were Z.
The speech gives voice to all these perspectives. It sits with us “in the barbershop or around the kitchen table,” where we vent our bigotries. Obama acknowledges our frustrations and forgives us our foibles:
I can no more disown [Wright] 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.
Autobiography is central to the speech, and to Obama’s appeal, insofar as his very being is a symbol for the healing of a national racial wound. He was “the bridge,” as David Remnick called his 2010 biography. The speech juxtaposed the Constitution’s promise of a “more perfect union” with Obama’s “own American story”:
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. . . . I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners. . . . I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
He’s a one-man Aufhebung! This, as much as his politics, is what has drawn writers to him.
The speech on race is justly celebrated; it is as honest as a political speech can be. It assumes the listener is intelligent enough to follow an argument that unfolds over five thousand words, and open-minded enough to hold contradictory ideas in suspension. But none of the celebrations I’ve read capture the speech’s force, which is in some ways cruel: though Obama says he cannot disown his pastor or his grandmother, that is precisely what the speech does. Wright’s “profound mistake,” Obama says at the pivotal moment, “is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made.” Wright spoke “as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.” Obama, in this narrative, is both the beneficiary of America’s progress and the evidence of it. It is progress and the country that have “made it possible” for Obama, one of Wright’s own congregation, to run for President. Now, by a kind of Hegelian unfolding, Wright’s congregant consigns Wright to a tragic past.
This narrative logic is not specific to the speech on race. It is central to Obama’s voice. His early memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995), has the same empathy for its characters and the same respect for its reader. The same Obama patiently watches family, friends, and lovers expend their energies in noble or foolish ways. The book is an account of Obama calibrating an identity separate from them. He renders their voices with generosity and care, but writes with the knowledge that in the end, no voice will be as complete, balanced, or wise as his own.
Throughout his Presidency, Obama has often been criticized in two ways: either he is sentimental and naive or he is professorial and aloof. He can capture with remarkable empathy the experiences of others and fashion them into a story representing some larger truth. He’s so good at it, in fact, that it comes across as too trusting, as not cunning enough for real politics. On the other hand, he seems distant, prone to haughty abstraction, too airy and erudite for real politics. These are contradictory criticisms. How can he be too empathetic and too aloof?
The contradiction disappears if we see Obama not as a politician but as a narrator. Narrators in novels have a similar command over intimacy and distance. A third-person omniscient narrator can bring us close to a character and engender empathy for that character, flaws and all. But at key moments, the narrator pulls away. It can read as cold or cruel. Forgiveness is granted only in the unforgiving past tense. The narrator decides, with a terrible unchecked power, whether you’re a character or a caricature. Obama’s speech on race is a masterpiece of narration, which is to say that it is a masterpiece of empathy and a masterpiece of aloofness.
Narrator in Chief
Obama came into office with three significant advantages. The first was that he was not George W. Bush. The second was that he sounded nothing like George W. Bush. Whatever his private intelligence, Bush was a pitiable speaker, blank and blinking, and seemed not to know what he was saying whenever there was a text in front of him. His best moment of oratory was an improvisation atop a heap of rubble on September 14, 2001, when someone yelled, “We can’t hear you!” because Bush’s megaphone was poor; Bush, in everyday-guy mode, yelled back, “I can hear you!” The crowd chuckled. Obama, on the other hand, was commanding an adoring crowd of 100,000 in Berlin even before the election. Bush was so loathed that Berliners, only a few years earlier, had stuck tiny toothpick-flags of his face into dog shit on the street; now here was Obama, an American President-to-be, cheered in the heart of Europe, putting words together without embarrassing himself or his country. When Ronald Reagan went to Berlin in 1987, he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Obama in 2008 proclaimed in the same city that “the walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew, cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.” He spoke to the Mr. Gorbachev in our hearts.
Like country music, all this storytelling starts to feel false if you listen to a lot of it back to back.Tweet
Obama’s third advantage was that he had the story of his own election to tell. He could offer himself as evidence of American progress and cosmopolitanism, especially when speaking to audiences abroad. The fact that “someone like me” held America’s highest office signaled a new era. In Istanbul in April 2009, he put it this way: “We are still a place where anybody has a chance to make it if they try. If that wasn’t true, then somebody named Barack Hussein Obama would not be elected President of the United States of America.” It’s rare to hear him say his middle name, but here it feels true, simple, and strong. “Someone like me” is also handy before any audience with a legitimate grievance against American hegemony — at any Summit of the Americas, for instance. It became a good joke in front of a 2009 Tribal Nations Conference. As a Senator, he was ceremonially adopted into Montana’s Crow Nation; he imagined his adoptive parents thinking, “Only in America could the adoptive son of Crow Indians grow up to become President of the United States.”
The most important of these global speeches was delivered in Egypt in June 2009, where Obama announced “A New Beginning” for American relations with the Muslim world. The crowd at Cairo University cheered even the most basic greeting — Assalaamu alaykum — because it was noteworthy for an American President to utter it. Obama acknowledged that the war in Iraq was “a war of choice,” and he gently put away the doctrine of preemptive war the way you put away childish things (“It’s easier to start wars than to end them”). He consigned earlier administrations to the tragic past.
This speech makes for poignant viewing in 2016. The atmosphere is different now. But it is a good speech, well constructed around the motifs of time and timelessness. “I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo,” he began, and he invoked the “timeless poetry” of the Islamic world. “In ancient times and in our times,” he affirmed, “Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education.” Time returns in the peroration, but in a different way: as an expression, Lincoln-like, of humility.
All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort . . . to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.
X and Y in this speech were those who are “eager to stoke the flames of division” (X) and those who think “civilizations are doomed to clash,” here nodding to Samuel Huntington (Y). Z is the “one rule that lies at the heart of every religion — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” Obama closed with quotations from the Koran, the Talmud, and the Bible.
For speeches like these, and for not being George W. Bush, Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009. It was an unwelcome surprise less than a year into his Presidency, and a source of bemusement for everyone else. Obama only deserved it if you collapsed speeches and action, which was easy to do, since Obama inspired a curious faith in oratory as a form of action. It is fitting, somehow, that his Nobel speech was a poor effort. It suffers from a high school history paper’s grand and empty generalizations (“War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man”) and then offers — awkwardly for the occasion — a critique of pure pacifism. The speech is strong only when it acknowledges the inadequacy of speeches.
One constant across Obama’s thousands of speeches is the trope of the “story.” My story, our story, the American story. Sometimes the story has chapters: “the story of our nation is not without its difficult chapters.” Story links the individual to the nation, as in Obama’s refrain: in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
What I’m describing is not the goofy, hackneyed ritual of plopping some hitherto-unknown prop person next to the First Lady at the State of the Union address and describing his or her life (a move pioneered by Ronald Reagan in 1982 with a good fellow named Lenny Skutnik), though Obama does that, too. Nor is it the ploy of introducing a relatable common man — Joe the Plumber — into a presidential debate to make a point. I’m talking about a narrative tic that suggests a deeper logic. Examples abound. In Cairo: “Islam has always been a part of America’s story.” In a eulogy for Walter Cronkite: “Our American story continues. It needs to be told.” Announcing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009: “While this bill bears her name, Lilly knows this story isn’t just about her. It’s the story of women across this country still earning just seventy-eight cents for every dollar men earn.” About Gloria Estefan in 2015: “A humanitarian and a devoted family leader, Gloria Estefan embodies the story of America.”
The American story is the immigrant’s story. “Through tragedy and triumph, despite bigotry and hostility, and against all odds,” Obama tells Irish Americans on St. Patrick’s Day, “the Irish created a place for themselves in the American story.” The American story is the veteran’s story, too: “Each American who has served in Iraq has their own story. Each of you has your own story. And that story is now a part of the history of the United States of America.” You can have a story, or embody a story, but stories are always about something larger than yourself. You can contribute to the “American story,” because America also has a story, and that story is about something. It might be about democracy, or diversity, or it might just be about its own aboutness: meaning depends on seeing America itself in allegorical terms.
There’s a folksy country-music logic to all this storytelling. “After all, that’s what country music is all about — storytelling,” Obama told a group of country musicians at “An Evening of Country Music” at the White House, in remarks that were charming precisely because he does not listen to country music. “It’s about folks telling their life story the best way they know how — stories of love and longing, hope and heartbreak, pride and pain. Stories that help us celebrate the good times and get over the bad times. Stories that are quintessentially American.” Like country music, all this storytelling starts to feel false if you listen to a lot of it back to back.
Even as cliché, “story” reveals something about Obama’s understanding of the self. Story is the key to selfhood, whether it’s an individual story, the group story, or the national story. Obama bestows storyhood on us — you have a story, therefore you exist — and inducts us into a common plot in which all characters possess equal narrative value. Obama’s ascendancy is concurrent with the ascendancy of critical theory, and with the theories of selfhood and subjectivity that took hold in the multicultural academy in the 1980s, when he came of age intellectually. Everything is a text, Derrida insisted, but Obama turns text into story and offers a calm of reconstructionism after the storm of deconstructionism. To have your story told — to be included in the canon — is to be.
Before it was the American national motto, e pluribus unum referred to the gathering of different texts into a magazine or a single volume; before the American Revolution, e pluribus unum was the slogan of the Gentleman’s Magazine, and it appears in 18th-century poetry collections. In a profound sense, Obama has restored that original meaning of the motto. Pushed to its idealistic extreme, “story” would suggest that politics is not a matter of negotiation, nor even, ultimately, of power. It is a matter of anthology-building.
But stories are not history. Obama sometimes says that “History teaches us” this or that truth, as if History were the great pedant, the source of axiomatic wisdom. But more often, history is the thing you grapple with. In Turkey in 2009, history was a weight: “History is often tragic, but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight.” In Cuba in 2016, history was a barrier: “Havana is only ninety miles from Florida, but to get here we had to travel a great distance — over barriers of history and ideology; barriers of pain and separation.” History is the ocean in which we float or drown. “The blue waters beneath Air Force One once carried American battleships to this island.” The same waters “carried generations of Cuban revolutionaries to the United States,” and the “tides of history” brought conflict, exile, and poverty in the cold war. “I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it,” he pivots, consigning the cold war to the tragic past. The speech can then cross that distance: “And I’ve come here — I’ve traveled this distance — on a bridge that was built by Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.”
History wounds. Story heals and transcends. A repetition of history signals a failure of politics. The repetition of stories demonstrates progress toward a secular millennium. History is tragic. Story is romantic or comic.
Theories of history are always theories of the future, and Presidents’ theories of history often involve occult, oracular communications with the future. George W. Bush, as the disaster of his presidency wore on, became a desperate reader of biographies. When Bush said “history will judge,” history was a kindly future biographer who would rescue him from the condemnation of every historian of the present. As time wore on, his speeches amounted to little more than clumsy, frantic prayers to that future pardoner. When Bush called himself “the decider” and called his memoir Decision Points, he was not just arrogating power to himself or speaking businessman-ese; he was suggesting that history consists of individual decisions, a leader alone in a room with limited options, a red pill and a blue pill, time marching mechanically on. With such a narrow view of history, and such a record of terrible decisions, it’s not surprising that decisiveness was his only remaining virtue.
Obama dramatizes not the individual decision but the generational one: the we of “yes we can” is a generational we. Rhetorically at least, he is not the one making the decision; he summons a generation and narrates that generation’s decision. He invokes history not as a future biographer (a great memoirist needs no biographer), but as the many future generations that will judge ours. His theory of history posits not a mechanical series of decision points, but a mystical series of generational moments.
In Obama’s speeches, every historical achievement is framed as a generational achievement, even if the demographics are vague: the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement. Early on, abolition was the generational achievement he called on most often to inspire the present. In February 2009, on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s two-hundredth birthday, Obama gave a stirring transgenerational speech. It is one of his best. “When posterity looks back on our time, as we are looking back on Lincoln’s,” he said,
I don’t want it said that we saw an economic crisis but did not stem it; that we saw our schools decline and our bridges crumble but we did not rebuild them; that the world changed in the 21st century but America did not lead it; that we were consumed with small things when we were called to do great things. Instead, let them say that this generation — our generation — of Americans rose to the moment and gave America a new birth of freedom and opportunity in our time.
Generation occurs in Obama’s speeches almost as often as story, and it might be the quintessential Obama term. It has both a biblical and a marketing resonance: it calls to mind both Ecclesiastes and Adweek. Consider a paragraph from Obama’s Second Inaugural Address:
This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.
The “generation” at work here has no demographic coherence or specificity (although I suspect he had in mind every demographic except the boomers), but it does have an essential narrative logic. It exists tautologically: We are made for this moment. A generation can be defined as the thing that exists in the now of the narrative.
In the narrative world of an Obama speech, the protagonist of every story is in some sense a generation, and the climax of every story is a moment. For Bush, time was always running out, like Jack Bauer’s clock in 24. The decision point was that instant when one billiard ball hits the next, and God willing, your aim was true. But in the greatest Obama speeches, because of their eloquence and ceremonial grandeur, time itself slows. The moment is a sacred, baptismal pause. Christened as part of a generation, you, American citizen, are given a glimpse of the eternal. When Obama says, “This is our moment,” he means both the moment in the story and the moment in the speech — that dilated, mysterious, oratorical now. “This is our moment” is an incantation, powerful because it collapses speech, story, and action into a single, salvific, visionary event. The speech announces the moment, and it is the moment.
The particular mood of the late Obama years — that inevitable feeling of loss or coming down among liberals, Democrats, and the center-left — is hard to name. Disappointment is too parental; disillusionment not right, either, because the heights of Obama rhetoric and inspiration were not necessarily illusions. The mood is not simply a product of paralyzed government, of the crimes and tragedies of foreign policy, of the Nobel Peace Prizes that brought no peace; it isn’t really about Obama’s failures or his successes, which are not my concern here. The feeling needs one of those compound German words, like Bedeutsamkeitserschöpfung: momentousness fatigue. It’s a curious ambivalence to want salvation while you’re weary of being saved.
That mood was itself a luxury.
So far I have said little about war. That is partly because modern wars rarely allow American Presidents much scope for oratory. Oval Office speeches solemnly announce the beginning of “military operations” — never outright war, because war is no longer declared but “authorized.” These speeches are pale impressions of Winston Churchill. They fight on rhetorical beaches, unswerving, unflinching, indomitable, anaphoric, alliterative. Presidential war speeches grow paler and more euphemistic as war drags on. It proves impossible to orate a war’s end if that war has no end. George W. Bush’s attempt — the “mission accomplished” speech aboard an aircraft carrier — was an embarrassment and a moral crime.
Drones need no Churchills and deserve no Lincolns.Tweet
Oratorically at least, “Commander in Chief” is the worst of all presidential personae. The title is drawn from a neutral and bureaucratic phrase in the Constitution (Article II, Section 2), but with the rise of the national security state in the 20th century, the term has taken on the weight and sanctimony of empire. “Commander in Chief” is our imperial cant, a robe and scepter in verbal form. Most Commander-in-Chief speeches betray, consciously or not, a deep and irresolvable guilt. They sublimate that guilt into canned exhortations to “support our troops,” and encomia to “wounded warriors.” They deploy the falsest national “we.”
In general, Obama has avoided blustery war speeches. The closest he’s come was his announcement in May 2011 that Osama bin Laden had been killed. It was delivered in the White House’s East Room, with the podium placed in the open doorway of a pillared hall for added pomp. It was one of the rare Obama speeches delivered live to TV stations as an Important Interruption, and was spoken to a camera with that awkward teleprompter effect. As a speech, it is almost as hollow and stilted as Bush’s “Mission Accomplished,” minus the banner and the aircraft carrier. It is heavy on justification, insisting that “Americans understand the costs of war” even though most Americans do not. It rests on clichés about values: “We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are.” The peroration boasts that “America can do whatever we set our mind to” and then clumsily states that “that is the story of our history.” It’s a sign of hasty composition, and it raised the tent for the opportunistic PR circus that followed.
Obama tried to convey the sense of an ending, but nothing of substance had ended. He presided over war that doesn’t feel like war, so why should we expect great war oratory? Drones need no Churchills and deserve no Lincolns.
Who We Are
Or perhaps I should put it this way: Obama has given great war speeches, only not about war. Obama’s great war speeches have been about domestic shootings. The saddest irony in the Obama corpus is that these moments bring him closest to Lincoln.
The first was in November 2009, after the shooting at Fort Hood in Texas. Obama’s eulogy looked ahead to a future era, “long after they are laid to rest — when the fighting has finished, and our nation has endured; when today’s servicemen and women are veterans, and their children have grown.” It recalls the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln looked ahead to an era that “will little note nor long remember what we say here,” but would “never forget what they did here.” Lincoln’s Second Inaugural likewise deploys a poignant future-perfect tense, imploring us “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
Because the victims of the Fort Hood shooting were servicemen and women, it was possible to see them as martyrs and to state with alliterative confidence that “we press ahead in pursuit of the peace that guided their service.” An archaic style is appropriate when the setting is military, as it was at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013: “May God hold close the souls taken from us and grant them eternal peace,” Obama said in closing. “And may God grant us the strength and the wisdom to keep safe our United States of America.” Note the pointedly formal word order: hold close the souls and keep safe our United States.
After the 2011 shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others in Tucson, Arizona, Obama gave another war speech, though the setting was not military. He spoke of the men and women who had tackled the shooter and aided the wounded. They “remind us that heroism is found not only on the fields of battle. . . . Heroism is here, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, all around us, just waiting to be summoned.” The speech refines grief into patriotism. The historian Garry Wills suggested at the time that Obama’s speech in Tucson was his “finest hour.” Obama echoed Lincoln’s mourning at Gettysburg (“from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion”), but moved beyond mourning toward the inspirational rhetoric of Henry V at Agincourt (“For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother”). There was even a touch of the miraculous, when Obama reported that Giffords “opened her eyes for the first time” while he was in the hospital with her.
The devices of traditional war oratory give order to chaotic events. At Fort Hood, Obama reflected on who we are: “We are a nation that endures because of the courage of those who defend it.” “We are a nation of laws.” “We’re a nation that is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal.” “That’s who we are as a people.” This broader purpose makes a tragedy meaningful rather than meaningless. But over time, the randomness of shootings becomes a challenge to oratory, because randomness defies any national purpose or story. And the affirmations of war oratory erode. “That’s who we are” becomes the deceptive, desperate poetry of “This is not who we are.”
Obama first stepped beyond the templates of traditional war oratory in 2012, after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The speech begins with the standard national “we” and the formal language of eulogy (“I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts”). But then the language turns normal, and the national “we” turns inward: “This is our first task: caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.” There follows a set of questions:
And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural posed a knotty theological question about what the “mighty scourge of war” revealed about the Almighty’s judgments upon us. Obama’s straightforward questions in Newtown dispense with reflections on the Almighty’s mysterious purpose: “I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”
The speech arrives at the first names of the twenty children who were killed, stated simply, one after the other: “Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Allison.” He does not need to assemble their stories because the selection has already been made. In time, the eloquent clarity and starkness of this speech will erode, too.
His second departure from the template of war oratory was in June 2015, after nine people were killed in the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South. Obama delivered the eulogy for one of the victims, South Carolina State Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney. The first line — “Giving all praise and honor to God,” without any presidential pleasantries — tells us right away that this is not a speech but an actual sermon. Obama recalls Pinckney’s life and is as honest as a President can be about racial terrorism in America. The shooter, he said, “drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress.” Against that terrorism stands the black church and its heroic history. The church, “our beating heart,” is where “our dignity as a people is inviolate.”
The pivot of the sermon is not the pregnant pause that usually comes before Obama reaches toward that transcendent Z and consigns X and Y to the past. (There is no X, Y, or Z in this speech, nor was there a teleprompter in the church where he gave it.) The pivot is a preacher’s pivot: “Ohhh,” he says with a gentle laugh, about halfway through, “but God works in mysterious ways,” and the congregation erupts in knowing cheers. The killer, Obama says, “didn’t know he was being used by God.” This is a new interpretation, untried in any other speech. To suggest that the shooter was, unbeknownst to himself, an agent of God’s will, that he was sent not as a punishment for our sins (for Pinckney was no sinner) but as the divine mechanism that allows us to receive and express God’s grace — such an argument could fly only in a sermon. It needs the rhythm of a sermon, it needs the delivery of a sermon, and it needs the affirmations and amens of the congregation.
The congregation, after all, has to follow the preacher into a paradox: that we are saved by tragedy, that while the shooter was “blinded by hatred,” his blindness makes us see love. The shooter visited terror upon a church, but in the same moment, “God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.” Lincoln could not have made this argument. Nor could Obama have made this argument before. All the other models of oratory were exhausted.
The sermon soars. The band bursts in occasionally, punctuating Obama’s catalog of ways we can “express God’s grace”: by taking down the Confederate flag, as South Carolina’s governor had finally done soon after the shooting; “by recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born.” If we were to change our gun laws, we would “express God’s grace.” Near the sermon’s end, after a long pause, Obama sings the first verse of “Amazing Grace.” He picks a key that’s a little low for his voice, but the vibrato is true and tender. The band finds the key and the congregation joins him. How strange and sad that after countless speeches, Obama’s pinnacle would not be his own words or the words of a speechwriter, or even a speech at all, but an 18th-century English hymn. It is beautiful, and also a last resort.
After that the speeches grow bitter. In October 2015, after a shooting at a community college in Oregon, Obama’s speech acknowledged its own redundancy: “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine.” We’re left with a basic civics lesson recited to a listless classroom: “This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.” In June 2016, after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, we are left with a grim, graceless prediction: “If we don’t act, we will keep seeing more massacres like this — because we’ll be choosing to allow them to happen. We will have said, we don’t care enough to do something about it.”
We will have said. It is a rare instance in the Obama corpus of the future-perfect tense. Lincoln said at Gettysburg that “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” That refrain has become, in Obama’s late speeches, the pained possibility that our dedications, consecrations, and hallowings are themselves acts of bad faith. It turns out this is who we are.