If you want to read reviews, I have three links for you, at least so far. All raves. First of all, the expert: James Fallows gives Barack Obama high grades indeed. Second, perhaps the person I follow who listens to Obama most carefully, Andrew Sprung. Third, Andrew Sullivan, for once more subdued than excitable, as he live-blogged. And I'll toss in two quotes, both tweets from Adam Serwer:
this speech reminds me that the criticism I find most incomprehensible is the idea that the president does not love his country.
Everytime POTUS actually talks, it makes the version of him you hear about from Limbaugh or Beck sound utterly ridiculous.Now, I have to say something that might sound a little crass. I'm sorry about that. Hang on, and you'll see that it's not crass at all.
What I have to say is that these type of speeches are really easy. Yes, presidents have been known to get them wrong...yes, we can think about how to rank them against each other, and I won't argue with Fallows about where this one ranks.
But this is easy. And not just because he had the good luck to have wonderful news to disclose, that Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes for the first time. Or because, and I'm trying to find a gentle way to say this, but the facts of the horror are, purely from a speechwriting perspective, almost made to order.
No, that's not it.
It's an easy speech because everyone watching wants the president to succeed. It's an easy speech because that's how representation works, at its best. He's not only Barack Obama speaking; he's speaking on behalf of the American people. Mind if I get a bit technical? Hanna Pitkin says that representation is "the making present in some sense of something which is nevertheless not present literally or in fact" (The Concept of Representation, 9, her emphasis). In my view, political representation, then, is a process in which a representative and his or her constituents collectively decide in which ways the constituents will be made present by the actions and behaviors of the representative, even though they will not really be present. Of course, we don't actually, all 300 million of us, sit down and collectively figure out what exactly we should all say to ourselves just now. But because we're engaged, all of us who do engage in politics, in an ongoing relationship with our elected officials, it's sort of like that, in a way.
So when a president speaks to the nation on this kind of occasion, an occasion in which we all agree that he should be speaking for us, he's not just speaking for us; in a sense, we're there, present, speaking, even though we are not there. And we're always willing to give ourself the benefit of the doubt, and so therefore in these sorts of times we're willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, that's not true for all of a president's speeches. And it isn't, in the end, true for all of us, as some partisans reject the relationship entirely, while others are indifferent to the whole thing and ignore it. But that, I think, is one of the ways that democratic representation works.
This is why, I think, that folks such as Matt Yglesias and Alex Massie who argue that the United States would be better splitting the roles of head of state and head of government are, in my view, wrong (near as I can tell, the argument is sincere, although I'm not sure how serious either is about actually selecting a King of America). Of course, royalty does represent the nation, to some extent. But it's a narrower representation; a less political version. And the US has always opted for politics, in its best sense (which sometimes means, of course, that we often get politics at its worst). After all, this is a nation founded in politics, not in a particular people or a particular landmass. It is a nation dedicated to a principle, as our version of sacred texts tell us. In that sort of nation, ceremony has to be of its politics for it to be meaningful.
Obama or any president represents us -- makes us present even though we are not present -- because we have contended with him, because he's had to make so many promises to us about what he will do, how he will act, who he will be. Barack Obama is, as we all know, a talented speaker. The Barack Obama who gave the speech in Tucson, however, is one who has built himself through his interactions with the electorate, who has become our representative in a rich sense, not a narrow one. That's why even the worst of them, even a Jimmy Carter or a George W. Bush, are usually able to deliver when the occasion calls for it. Put a little oratorical skill into the mix, and, well, you're going to get what you heard last night in Tucson.