Many people are trying to define President Barack Obama’s legacy on the basis of his White House years. This is the norm. However, to those who have followed keenly the trajectory of Obama’s path to power, his Presidential years were just to implement what he had publicly articulated years before he even made a decision to run for Illinois Senate seat. Just like Martin Luther King Junior had done so much in life, and struggled for civil liberties but came to be defined by his “I Have a Dream” speech, so can Obama be defined by two speeches – one at an Anti-War Rally organised by Saltzman in October 2002, and another at the Democratic National Convention of July 2004.
The convention was to endorse Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts – now Obama’s Secretary of State – as the Democrats’ Presidential nominee. Held at the Boston Fleet Centre arena and attended by 15,000 accredited media personnel, and more than 5,000 delegates, the convention was simply a week of carnival – a pageantry of sorts in which the party sought to sell its candidates and ideals to the American electorate, largely through the 15,000 media brigands.
Kerry had won the nomination on the plank of making America “stronger at home and more respected abroad”. He gambled with the invitation to the little known Illinois candidate for the US senate. Obama had never used a teleprompter or spoken before an audience of that size before. Five thousand delegates, a couple of thousands observers and 15,000 journalists – that is definitely a crowd that would give even a seasoned political orator some goose pimples. Robert Gibbs was Obama’s communication adviser, a role he was to carry to White House as Obama’s Press Secretary in his first term. He had advised the aspiring Senator that keynote addresses normally fall in two broad categories – thematic and programmatic.
Thematic speeches usually involves broad, sweeping speeches touching on what has gone wrong with the country or non-specific ideas on how to strengthen the country, while programmatic speeches homed in on specific policy details and offered solutions to major problems facing the country. Obama chose the former. He had been thinking in broad terms how the country was headed the wrong direction. He decided to loosely base his address on two previous keynote speeches from oratorically gifted personalities that had gone down well with conventions.
One was from Mario Cuomo in 1984 in San Francisco titled A Tale of Two Cities, the other was Ann Richard’s 1988 speech at the Atlanta Convention. Cuomo had observed that America evolving under Reagan was a society divided into haves and have-nots based on wealth and education, a society being restructured by a social Darwinism in which the strong prevail over the weak. “We must make American people hear our tale of cities. We must convince them we have only one city, indivisible, shining for all its people. Richards did the same things four years later excoriating the Reagan administration for a “divide and conquer” strategy.
Listen to Obama at the convention: “The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States – Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I have good news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
Obamacare, the signature achievement of Obama’s was on the future senator and President’s mind when he spoke at the Anti-War Rally. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income – to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since Great Depression. That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics,” he declared.
Obama will be remembered for his healthcare for the uninsured, opposition to senseless wars, and indignation at corporate irresponsibility. These were fashioned much earlier in life. Presidency gave him opportunity to fulfil.