Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Obama as the New Cicero

That’s what a classical expert claims, and not without evidence. To think I thought McCain was the real Stoic in the campaign.

Discussions - 10 Comments

I learned a new term from this piece: "narrow bipartisanship." Sounds like Obama.

That was good. I was trying to say something nearly like that to my class about rhetoric, politics, Obama and MLK just two weeks ago, only not a speck as well.

If McCain had been Ciceronian, he'd have a chance. If Bush were, the world would be different. I too hope Obama makes good use of this skill of his.

That's an interesting analysis but goes too far in trying to find a connection between speaking well and governing well, as if the primary task of the statesman is demagoguery. Also, I tend to think that O's real rhetorical skill is simply overstated right now--after Bush the bar might not be terribly high.

Ethos, pathos, but what about the logos? Or as the old Wendy's commercial put it, "Where's the beef"?

Something about Higgins' article didn't seem right. So I looked up the text of George W. Bush's 2000 Republican Convention speech, and what did I find? Well, there was praeterito, anaphora, epiphora, antonomasia, and the good ol' series of threes. It is almost like the rhetorical devices of the Greek and Romans were not sleeping in our presidential politics waiting to be revived by Obama's supreme powers. Higgins would be a better judge of presidential rhetoric if she listened to more of it. I swear that Obama could bake a mediocre batch of chocolate chip cookies and his supporters would declare that he revolutionized cuisine. Some more thoughts,

1. While he is not as good a speaker as Obama, we are underselling Bush's use of rhetoric in the 2000-2004 period. His big speeches were not always smoothly delivered but they were pretty well crafted and contained some serious thoughts. His present unpopularity should not cause us to look back on his best speeches with unjustified contempt.

2. I disagree with Ivan about Obama being overrated in his speechmaking. He really is amazingly good. The problem with the cheap and extravagant praise of his supporters is that it obscures what is truly great about Obama's accomplishments. Obama's ability to competently use the devices of classical rhetoric help him be a better than average speaker. But Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson were both adept at the classical rhetorical devices and they were never able to appeal to those outside the Democratic base. Obama has something those two (very talented) speakers didn't that lets him communicate liberalism to those who are not committed liberals. I can't quite put my finger on what it is, and Prof. Higgins' doesn't help.

What Obama has that others did not is a political corpse and miss conginiality as his opposition. Also, a bad economy and destabalized world following eight years of the other party. Round steak sounds great when the alternative is kibbles and bits. I'm sure the rhetoric will remain, but is anyone curious as to why change is has been dropped after the election. I guess Change is retaining Gates, who when he served as Brezkinzski's right hand man under the Carter administration actually founded Al CIAda as an intellegence asset using muslim fundamentalism to play arabs off against the russians. How he is now a conservative is amazing, just tell me how he comes up in the liberal regime and now is a conservative and that those two words are not simplistic divide and conquer mechanisms.

If the GOP is smart (and I'm not betting on it), they will begin to prepare truly conservative initiatives on health care, industrial policy and the like. Why? Because Mr. "Yes We Can" won't accomplish squat, but he'll sure talk up a good line. So, in four years, assuming we can get a nominee who understands his electorate, we could say "Where's the medical fix? Where's the industrial fix?" A great ad campaign, but only if you have good alternative solutions to present.

An even better thing would be for Mr. Obama to succeed in his socialism. This country is spoiled rotten, and 4 years of bust-ass socialism is just the right prescription for all those soccer moms who voted for "yes we can."

I still don't see that Obama's rhetoric counts as "amazing" at any level. Surely Higgins exaggerates the extent to which he raises the intellectual bar---even at merely the terminological level. Also, our modern tendency is to separate out style and substance when we discuss rhetoric in a way that the Romans did not---when substance becomes an issue O's rhetoric is pretty thin, chock full of evasive platitudes. There is a certain facility with respect to his style, a quality of voice and cadence of delivery, even a kind of comportment that makes him superior to some others in SOME circumstances, particularly the big ticket address before a teleprompter..but we've all seen that he's considerably less impressive when more extemporaneous speech is demanded.

Ivan, still gotta disagree. Obama is able to craft a rhetorical liberalism that enthuses people who are already liberal, appeals to people who are neither solidly liberal nor conservative, and makes it difficult for conservatives to persuasivley point out to that middle group what is so wrong with Obama's rhetoric. It is a neat trick and Obama is the first liberal since at least the sixties to make it work on a national level. The attacks on Obama as vague or evasive are partly correct, but they are also a sign that he is running rings around his conservative critics. Much like Reagan, he floats around attacks like a butterfly. Over at the Atlantic, Ross Douthat compared him to a panther (striking when he chooses to and then going back into concealment)and there is something to that too. Obama is able to sell himself while leaving his opponents a very small target and that is also a valuable rhetorical skill.

If Obama's policies fail badly enough, no amount of eloquence will save him, but if conservatives want to craft a rhetoric that can match Obama's, they need to take his skills and rhetorical strategies (and not the ones that Higgins mentioned) seriously. One suggestion. How similar are conservative complaints about Obama's rhetoric to 1980s liberal complaints about Reagan's rhetoric?

More than half of Americans are soft-minded ninnyhammers. Better get used to it and learn to sway them (although it's tough when you AREN'T appealing to the worst in human nature, as the Dems so often do in terms of envy, resentment, and race). In my book, it's time to step away from big-business Republicanism and reinvigorate the Reagan (socially conservative) wing of the party. That's been the ticket to victory all along...Reagan's message helps us gather thoughtful Americans and just enough of the ninnyhammers to win.

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