Whatever the accolades for the speech that Obama delivered at his inauguration, it seems it won’t generate a singular sound bite as in JFK’s “Ask not…” or FDR’s “Fear itself” (Many of the major papers picked themes, rather than pluck quotes, although a few took to “hope over fear“). Pundits have hailed Obama as a gifted orator and skilled speechwriter, but generally overlook one aspect of his speaking that distinguishes it from his peers’: its complex structure resists distillation down to a single quotable phrase.
Non-quotability is often fatal to those who survive on media exposure, and in the early days of 2007 it seemed Obama’s campaign would drown in his words. Yet thanks to a deep and wide funding base, he survived long enough to turn that liability into a core asset. The Obama campaign is credited with doing an end-run around the media, going straight to the people through email and Youtube, but the candidate’s rhetoric aided that strategy. Summarizing his speeches is like paraphrasing a poem, which drives the public to seek out the original — the full text of Obama’s inaugural speech currently sits in the NY Times’ top 10 most emailed, and of course his so-called “race speech” famously convinced millions of Americans to sit down for a 40+ minute talk about one of America’s most difficult issues. By using complex constructions that resist distillation, Obama minimizes out-of-context critics, although he cannot mute them (witness the “bitter” comment).
Obama reached the pinnacle of oratory in his New Hampshire concession, which turned narrow defeat into triumphant victory. But brilliant as it was, the speech would have languished in the circles of hard-core Obama supporters were it not for Will.i.am and Jessie Dylan’s recognition that its core, can-do optimism needed a fuller articulation than the mainstream media could provide. So they set the speech to song, and suddenly many millions more were willing to stretch their attention from a 10-second soundbite to a 4:30 journey.
It was a stroke of brilliance for Will.i.am, and maybe of luck for Obama. Never since the rise of mass media has a campaign succeeded on assuming not only the basic intelligence of voters, but also their willingness to hear out a complex argument. The technology to bypass top-down media is one cornerstone of Obama’s success as a communicator. His nonreductive rhetoric is another. And if he continues to convince Americans to dig deeper into complex issues and not settle for the pat answer, we are already on our way to the change we need to take back our country.