Thursday, January 13, 2011

Obama In Tucson

What happened in Tucson on Saturday was an attack on democracy.  What the President of the United States did in his speech in Tucson was democracy fighting back.

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.


  1. Yes, maybe it's easy to suggest that we pull together as a nation at such times and focus on what unites us rather than on what divides us, and so answer listeners' thirst for a bit of communitas. It's easy to celebrate the heroes and the victims (though O did so concisely, concretely, and without mawkishness). It's even easy to say "let's look forward, not back" as we try to reduce the rancor.

    What's not so easy is to suggest, without being preachy, that we all look inward rather than continuing to try to diagnose what's wrong with the country's politics. Also not easy: to build slowly, without being maudlin or cheesy, to the point where you're able to say "this country is a family" after having described the diverse people involved in the tragedy (the structure of the event helped here)-- and to have that idea grow out of the suggestion that we all approach this tragedy as we would the loss of a family member.

    So yes, while it may be easy for a President to get good marks in a situation like this, I suspect Obama went deeper. Along with "a little oratorical skill" is an enormous capacity for *thought.* But then, as a partisan, I went in with a thirst to be 'represented.'

  2. Amen, brother.

    I was going to write Fallows and call him all out this. I'd go one point further: Obama is really really good at this. I always thought it comes from Obama looking at Bill Clinton, who got a lot of praise for this sort of thing, and thinking "man, this white m-f is so faking it, and I can do better."

    However, this is only about 5% of the job of being President, and it would be nice to have him show up and, well, actually talk about what he wants to do with the county.

  3. ASP,

    No argument with any of that (or with what you and the others I cited said).


    If this is 5% of the presidency, then talking about what he wants to do with the country is also about 5% (and, IMO, he's doing fine with that, although of course not everyone agrees with that). Most of being president is not about giving speeches.

  4. Thinking of Pericles...January 13, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    Rhetorical analysis supports your argument: Epideictic speeches (those of praise and blame) are specifically oriented toward the listener's judgment of the present, of whether or not this moment is representative of ourselves and who we wish to be. This doesn't mean that it ignores past and future, but that our understanding of where we have come from and where we are going become enframed by how we interpret the here and now.

    Most political wrangling deals with determining "what has happened" in judicial form and "what will happen" in deliberative form, and these possibilities are often tightly circumscribed by almost innumerable material factors. In the case of the epideictic, however, we are invited to reconstitute our past and future, to choose what is worthy of praise and deserving of shame, based on who we decide to be in the now. And unlike deliberative or judicial speech, which occurs in many places but has the most power when housed in restrictive institutions (the assembly, the court--where only a handful of people are authorized to make decisions about legislation or guilt) the epideictic invites all spectators into the decisionmaking process, and makes them a part of the now. It gives "the public" (usually abstract, patched together, asserted) manifest presence.

  5. "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on creed." -- G.K. Chesterton

  6. Oh, dear. I feel churlish saying so, but I found the speech profoundly unimpressive. It sounded no different from his campaign rhetoric, and some of the most replayed soundbites are treacly nonsense. (How does one use "words that heal" during heated political debate?)

    I am broadly supportive of the President, and certainly wanted him to "succeed" last night. While I don't think he failed, neither did I find it a moment of historic greatness.

  7. I'm not sure you need complex theories of representation to explain what makes speeches of this kind relatively easy. The main thing is that there's no controversy over the basic points in play: Everyone's against mass murder, insanity, random gunfire in public places, the pointless death of children, etc. Everyone's for badly injured people getting better and for national communities being peaceable, not wracked by violence. Naturally, people appreciate hearing these sentiments well-expressed, but I wonder if they're really thinking in terms of the president speaking "for them" or imagining that "in a sense, we're there, present, speaking." I don't feel that way when I listen to presidents, even when I agree with them. Then again, I don't normally feel that what happens in America happens "to me" or is necessarily more important than a lot of other things happening in the world. Maybe it comes from spending a lot of time abroad, and from including non-Americans among my best friends. At any rate, I think the psychology of representation -- when and to what extent people actually project or transfer themselves into public figures -- is probably something we tend to imagine we know a lot more about than we actually do.

  8. It's an easy speech because everyone watching wants the president to succeed.

    No they certainly do not! Maybe everyone watching who YOU care about, but if you followed the Twitter-web you would have seen the most vile hateful comments.

    The one criticism the righties seemed to settle on was that it was crass and unseemly for so many people to be cheering. Brit Hume called it a "pep rally." Yes, the cheers of the audience really chapped some folks' britches. As if anyone has a right to tell Tucson what and how to feel. Glenn Beck gave a backhanded "better late than never" complement - good speech, but he should have said it on Saturday.

    Worst of all was partisan hack Erik Erickson -- who let's not forget is a freaking CNN correspondent. He not only called it "a pep rally" filled with "sloganeering, bumper stickers, and t-shirts," he then went on to remind us that Obama has "failed at every presidential speech he's ever given as president." You just gotta wonder what the heck he was watching last night ... or even if he even bothered to watch at all.

    Jonathan, none of these folks on the right have ever wanted President Obama to succeed, not last night, not ever. These aren't crackpot commenters over at the Free Republic, these are pundits and significant personalities with a broad media reach. Leaders of the right.

    Wake up.

  9. In considering the speech further today, I pondered that the necessary objective (from the state's point of view) is to encourage those like Jared Loughner, currently lurking in the shadows, to bring their issues into the public square, where they can be discussed in a way that will not drive those individuals closer to the edge, which is the likely outcome of their current consumption of media. That would have been a good speech focus, I thought, and much better than the whole 'make the world better for little girls' segment that I personally found so emotionally wrenching.

    But then I read Andrew Sprung's review and I realized that, actually, 'come out of the shadows' was a really big point of emphasis in the speech, e.g. 'expand our moral imaginations', 'listen to each other more carefully', 'remind ourselves...our hopes and dreams are bound together' were all designed precisely to achieve the corporate objective of the night, namely, to get those like Loughner, on the brink of disaster, to come back to the national family.

    I don't know if others on the brink of disaster got the 'come out of the shadows' message; I sure didn't hear it because I was steamrolled by the 'make the world better for our children' powerhouse. And so perhaps whether these speeches are easy depends on your objective:

    If you want to push the buttons of your audience, they're a piece of cake. If you want to push forward the important business of the state, you have to do that around and between pushing the aforementioned buttons...not so easy. Not sure how well Obama achieved his "come out of the shadows" objective last night, even though the speech was a masterwork of emotion.

  10. You write that "It's an easy speech because everyone watching wants the president to succeed."

    Are you SERIOUS??? Do you ever listen to the hate-speech spewing out of Rush Limbaugh's gaping pie-hole on a daily basis? The eagerness with which Druge searches for one word in the speech that he can whine about? The insane and nonsensical Politico commentary about Obama "hurting" the federal case agaist the shooter (even as, a few words later, they point out that the President's comments wouldn't affect the case at all)? Sorry, dude, but one thing is crystal clear: There ARE some people who do NOT want this president to succeed. The same people who do NOT want our economy to improve (lest they are forced to give credit to the evil Kenyan anti-colonialst Muslim terrorist-lover)! Those people are not hiding, they are easy to spot: Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Drudge, the entire staff at National Review, and the list goes on and on. You really need to open your eyes to what is exaclty going on in this country!

  11. SB and Anon 4:32,

    As I said in the post, "some partisans" are not part of this, but IMO it's really a very small group. After all, note that the speech got pretty good reviews from conservatives (who were reduced to attacking the audience...yeesh). Anyway, I'm really not talking about partisan elites, who are essentially paid to produce partisan spin; I'm talking about ordinary citizens.

  12. Obama could find a cure for lung cancer and some political opponents would only complain that he hadn't done a thing about colon cancer. The same could be said for every president before him except Washington, who had no real political opposition. The majority of the American people work out what's what fairly quickly. Give them a chance.

  13. As I said in the post, "some partisans" are not part of this, but IMO it's really a very small group.

    Jonathan, honey, wake the heck up. A small group? Really? It's the ENTIRE right wing media machine! Look how quickly the term "pep rally" ricocheted around the conservative media. I wonder if that wasn't on some fax-blast issued by the Frank Luntz School Of Republican Talking Points.

    Give me a break. Small in number? Even if that were true they have a VERY large microphone.


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