Friday, January 23, 2009

Barack Obama, Writer-in-Chief

By Dan Gerstein

(NOTE: This column originally ran on on the morning of the Inauguration)

To speechwriters like myself, Tuesday's inaugural address is the "Super Olympics" of public rhetoric--combining the intense, high-stakes expectations of the Super Bowl with the once-every-four-years pageantry and poignancy of the Olympic Games. As in past years, we'll order pizza, stock the fridge with Red Bull and tune in to William Safire's wordplay-by-play.

But this year will be different, extra-special--and not just for the obvious reasons or only for our fraternity of metaphor masters. For the first time since the advent of the professional political speechwriter under Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president giving the inaugural address will himself be an accomplished, literary writer. Which means that, for most Americans, this will be the first president in their lifetimes who they can plausibly believe personally came up with the lofty words of renewal coming out of his own mouth.

How's that for a change--especially after the verbal dissonance and distrust coming out of the White House for the last eight years?

The ramifications of having a writer-in-residence as commander-in-chief, though, go much deeper than that. Barack Obama's extraordinary linguistic abilities are arguably his most powerful political advantage at a time of grave economic insecurity. And they may well be what enable Obama to capitalize on his transformational potential, elevating him from an author of great turns of phrase to an author of great turns of history.

To understand why, it helps to first deconstruct the myth of Obama the speechmaker. That's how most people believe he became a phenomenon, by mobilizing and inspiring masses of disaffected Democrats (and more than a few independents and Republicans) with his words of hope and change. But the reality is that Obama was doing something much more profound than acting as a vessel and giving rousing speeches--he was trying to write the next chapter of American democracy.

We have grown cynically accustomed to political consultants and message-meisters creating pre-fab campaigns. But as I learned from some of Obama's political advisers, the Obama campaign really was Obama's campaign. It was his vision, his message, his arguments--and not least of all, his understanding of what the American people were feeling at this unsettling time and how they were yearning for a new politics as well as new policies.

More than anything, Obama sensed that most voters were exhausted by a generation of hyper-partisan political fights; they were desperate for an honest, respectful, grown-up dialogue about how to restore America's eroding greatness. So more than just launching a campaign, he set out to start a conversation. And to do so, he quite wisely chose a platform that maximized the utility of his intellectual and authorial gifts. Big speeches at big rallies were his best opportunity to communicate big ideals and big ideas.

These speeches, which for the most part Obama himself conceived and often wrote, also served a fundamental strategic purpose: to quickly and viscerally authenticate the biggest unknown entity to ever head a major ticket.

People who heard Obama's words did not just genuinely believe what he was articulating. They believed in his genuineness, that these were actually his thoughts and arguments. And that helped build a powerful bond of trust with millions of Americans that only intensified over time. It was the kind of connection that no number of TV commercials ever could forge--and one I doubt the first African-American president could have been elected without.

The best example of this, I believe, is the speech on race Obama delivered last April in the wake of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright debacle, which he wrote himself and insisted on delivering against the advice of his advisers. (To read the full text of the speech, please click here.)

I recently attended a political forum where it was discussed, and an audience member called it the greatest political speech he had ever heard. Not because of its eloquence or its arguments, the audience member said, but because it was real. Here was a mixed-race politician talking candidly about how his white grandmother would sometimes cross the street when she saw a young black man walking her way. This was an atypical display of courage, to talk on such a loaded subject. But it was also an atypical show of respect, showing white voters he understood them and was not judging them.

George W. Bush could never have conceived or written such a speech, which helps explain why he never formed the bonds of trust Obama already has with the heart of the American polity and why Bush was never able to rally the country to his side.

True, Bush did make some beautiful speeches in his presidency, none more so than his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention. But it was painfully obvious even then, and much more so as we got to know him as president and listened to his faltering answers to reporters' questions at press conferences, that too often Bush wasn't leading but following--and mouthing the thinking of others.

Compounding Bush's inarticulateness was his inattentiveness. He spoke in black-and-white terms that glossed over the nuances of many important issues, leaving many to question his understanding of them. Even worse, at least half the country never believed Bush understood them or even cared enough to speak directly to them. Some attributed that behavior to arrogance, others to cluelessness. Either way, it led to a massive confidence gap, which rendered Bush's presidency inert for at least his last two years in office.

A big reason that Obama has been able to soar above that gap--and to convince millions of Americans that a rookie senator, four years removed from the Illinois state legislature, is the right man to lead the country at a time we are enmeshed in two wars and our economy has collapsed--is his unique training as a constitutional law professor.

That experience, beyond giving him an understanding of the complex tensions inherent in our system of self-government that few politicians ever approach, taught him to appreciate different perspectives on complicated issues. It also taught him how to think and write precisely and persuasively to skeptical audiences.

It's no accident, then, that independents and Republicans who disagree with him on many issues have nevertheless warmed to Obama's leadership style. Or that Republicans in Congress have been so receptive to his entreaties for cooperation on his economic recovery package. He knows how to speak their language. And, more importantly, he knows, much like his rhetorical role model Abraham Lincoln, how to engage us all in the common vernacular of democracy.

That will be the central focus of Obama's address on Tuesday. Whether history will little note or long remember the actual phrases the new president uses in his speech is immaterial. His challenge is one of will, not words. That is, he must galvanize the country--not necessarily around a specific agenda, but around a set of shared values and a common sense of purpose.

His immediate goal will be to get us to sing from the same civic hymnal and re-familiarize us with the culture of consensus-building. That's the only way he--and we--can break the politics of paralysis and rescue the economy, wind down the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan and regain our standing in the world.

Our writer-in-chief's longer-term goal, I suspect, will be to cement his bonds of trust with the American people and deepen the stores of political capital he will need to hold the country together through the trials ahead. The kind of fundamental change Obama is promising won't happen overnight; his talents for persuasion and mobilization will continually be tested by future events as well as by old political fault lines and bad partisan habits.

If Obama can get the country to buy into a new era of responsibility and resist the pressures of division, he will guarantee his reelection in 2012. Further, he could very well write his own ticket into the small circle of America's greatest presidents.

Dan Gerstein, a political communications consultant and commentator based in New York, is the founder and president of Gotham Ghostwriters. He formerly served as communications director to Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and as a senior adviser on his vice presidential and presidential campaigns. He writes a weekly column for