The King's Speech

Obama's State of the Union reaffirmed our president's oratorical mediocrity

Departing from form, Sarah Palin said something bordering on clever the other day. Reacting to the vacuous festival of bromides that was President Obama’s State of the Union address, the former Alaska governor ridiculed the speech’s signature catchphrase, “Win the Future”—the latest in a long line of infantile Obamaisms—as a “WTF moment.”

“His theme last night was WTF, winning the future,” she said. “I thought, okay, that acronym—spot on. There were a lot of WTF moments throughout that speech.” Being Sarah Palin, however, she swiftly squandered her newly-acquired linguistic momentum with a lamentable pun, calling for a “Spudnut moment” in place of Obama’s “Sputnik moment.”

Despite the breathtaking fatuity of her insinuation that the Space Race led to the collapse of the Soviet Union (and that a potato flour donut shop in Richland, WA would thus serve as the superior model for American economic renewal), Palin’s derision struck a chord, although probably not in the manner that she envisaged. In the wake of the president’s speech, the shiny new slogan “Win the Future” was smeared all over the website of Organizing for America—the president’s quiescent campaign apparatus—implying that Obama intends to wield it as his battle cry for reelection. But if the humdrum “Win the Future” is to be this year’s “Change We Can Believe In,” then the 2012 presidential campaign is going to be a long one indeed.

There was a time when the Anglophone world produced the greatest orators on Earth. The 20th century alone heard Winston Churchill pledge to fight on the beaches, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, deliver us from fear itself, Martin Luther King, Jr. pronounce that he had a dream, and Ronald Reagan demand a wall be torn down. These were giants of speechmaking whose words have stood the test of time, and it is to these masters of the spoken word that Obama is being compared when he is hailed as the greatest orator of his generation. In 2008, we were told that we had been given the Roosevelt, the Kennedy, and the King of our time. While it was always understood at the time—by the sound-minded, at least—that this historical and political assessment was slightly hyperbolic, less acknowledged has been how grossly inflated this assessment was of the sitting president’s oratorical prowess as well.

Granted, in terms of verbal delivery, Obama is perhaps without contemporary equal. He has a good voice. But in written form, his words are scarcely discernable from that of his predecessor (or a high school student). A hallmark of the oratory of Churchill, Roosevelt, King, and Reagan is that their words are as arresting on paper as they are when spoken. But the literary sophistication defining the speeches of yore is sorely lacking from the speeches of today. Words now are simpler, sentences shorter, and intellectual heft has been all but expunged. Perhaps this is more the fault of a dumbed-down political discourse that steadily coarsens with each passing generation, but the president hardly merits applause for acquiescing to this trend by catering to the lowest common denominator.


Even his most exceptional orations—invariably remembered more for their catchy slogans than any substance—lack even the most fundamental trait of originality. True, there is a proud tradition of orators lifting their best lines from other orators. But whereas Kennedy stole “Ask not what your country can do for you” from President Warren Gamaliel Harding, Obama’s inspiration for “Yes We Can” appears to have been Bob the Builder. Obviously, I am not suggesting that the president literally pilfers children’s television shows for material, but it is not exactly confidence-inspiring that his catchphrases are on a comparable reading level to those of a children’s television show.

Most damning of all, however, is Obama’s failure to produce a single noteworthy address as president. It was during his campaign that we were graced with “Yes We Can,” and it was during someone else’s campaign that we heard “The Audacity of Hope.” What have we heard since then? “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.” A latter-day Gettysburg Address this is not.

History determines the caliber of the speech and the speechmaker not only by the eloquence of the words themselves but also by the moment in which they were spoken. This is also how leaders are measured, which is why the greatest leaders are those who preside over crises. Churchill had World War II, Roosevelt had the Great Depression, King had the Civil Rights Movement, and Reagan had the Cold War. Then there are many great speakers that history will relegate to oblivion because they had the misfortune of speaking without a crisis to speak to. Bill Clinton and Mario Cuomo fall into this category. Barack Obama, on the other hand, presented with the greatest economic calamity of our lifetimes, had a crisis but failed to speak.

Dhuv K. Singhal, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is an English concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.


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