Americans hear more from our current President on Twitter than we do from his speeches, and it seems better that way. Donald Trump is no orator; he admits he doesn’t even read for pleasure. President Trump’s 140-character tweet style of mass communication—with its em dash misuse, random capitalization, and misplaced exclamation!— might portend the future of American politics in which words don’t particularly matter.
It certainly contrasts greatly with President Obama’s powerful oratory. At The American Scholar, former DOJ speechwriter James Santel reads the newly-published collection of Obama’s speeches, We Are the Change We Seek, to discuss what Obama’s sense of storytelling reveals about him, and how the power of residential speeches can motivate us, set the national tenor, our vision of the future and, as Obama frequently said, define who we are.
Like all good orators, Obama was a storyteller. Among his favorite stories was his own: how the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas rose to become a U.S. Senator. That background opens the speech that made him a national figure, the Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. After talking about his parents and grandparents, he said, “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story.”
Obama uses his autobiography to argue that his unconventional background did not place him at odds with the American experience, but made him emblematic of it. That case required Obama to offer a particular reading of American history, which goes something like this: Our shared commitment to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the principles set forth in the Constitution has always been more powerful than our divisions and disagreements, allowing our country to slowly “perfect” itself over time (to use a favorite Obama verb). It is a story of steady change and patient progress, of obstacles overcome and common ground discovered, a story in which all people are given equal attention and credit. In it, racism and prejudice are not defining features of the American character, but blemishes upon it, historical aberrations that we have slowly corrected over time. Above all, it is a story that, in one way or another, has always made room for everyone.