Tag Archives: Obama

The rhetorical presidency

Barack Obama came into office nearly two years ago promising change. In fact, he promised a whole lot more than that. Some 500 promises were made by the Obama administration, of which very few have been kept. Yet in the UK media, Obama was the face of hope, the signal for the end of a disatrous era of war and apparent bullying tactics.

John McCain (remember him?) just didn’t fit the bill for a new America. His speeches were boring and he was old, ill and tired.

Obama victory was celebrated worldwide. Friends of mine told me it was “the best thing that’s ever happened to politics”. Obama thought so too: “To the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics, this one’s for you”, he said in his Chicago victory speech. Yet this hyperbole was barely questioned.
“The new Kennedy” had the look to match his appeal. Young, handsome and with a picture-perfect family, Obama was lauded by the press. The Times said it was “hard to see who could stop him”, describing him as a better speak than Kennedy. Sasha Abramsky said his election was “a transformative event”.

Why was it that the papers got so sucked in by the Obama campaign trail? What made this election so different from the others? Rhetoric, image and a need for change – Obama was the agenda of the moment.

Say what?!

It is strange to think that journalists have seen countless campaigns, and are wise to the language of lobbying. The ornate speeches, the allegory, the appeals to pathos and ethos. But Obama talked, and they lapped it up.

All except Gideon Rachman of the FT, who described Obama’s speechs as “vague to the point of vacuity.” What happened to his esteemed colleagues then?

“Well, speaking for myself, I remember watching him on TV the night of his Iowa victory, and thinking how empty his victory speech was, and how much it was just standard feel-good American rhetoric – and then being surprised and irritated by the ecstatic reaction.” he told me. “As for others, I think they were caught up in a mixture of hatred for the Republicans, and the romance of the Obama candidacy – his race and all that.”

Skip to the end of 2010 and the others seem to have caught up. Even The Guardian, his most vociferous supporter in 2008, has jumped on the Obama hate train. The middle pages are rife with Obama smear, criticising his preference for words over action. “What happened to the dream?”, asked The Telegraph in October.

It is, of course, hugely ironic that rhetoric that was so lauded by the mass media is proving to be Obama’s biggest downfall. “You can’t talk your way out of this one”, they’ll say. Well he sure as hell talked his way into it.

You can follow Neal Wallace on Twitter @nealjwallace