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Column: 'Obama showed that traditional oratory is the most powerful way that politicians can connect'

The only certainty now is that gifted orators like Barack Obama come along once in a lifetime, writes Amy Rose Harte.

Image: Shutterstock/Everett Collection

DESPITE LIVING IN an age of political communication where 140 characters on Twitter seems to be the medium of choice, Barack Obama’s tenure has proven that traditional oratory is still one of the most powerful ways that politicians can connect with people.

Here are my five examples of Obama’s rhetorical high-points.

‘A more perfect union’

A classic case of how to marshal an argument well. Delivered in response to the pastor Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 election, Obama elegantly withdrew the heat from the crisis with a slow-burn, stunning speech about race relations that many commentators claimed sealed his fate in the White House.

Claiming the USA was stuck in a “racial stalemate”, the 37-minute speech tackled issues of racial injustice, segregation, inequality, white privilege and anger, and the role that race played in the presidential campaign and his own life.

It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional of candidates. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one.

Obama and his speechwriters beautifully bookended the speech with poignant visual imagery of a “band of patriots” who gathered in a hall across the street in Philadelphia to launch America’s improbable experiment in democracy 221 years hence.

The manner in which it spread online became a media event in itself, with the New York Times noting that the transcript of the speech was emailed more times than their own news story on it, indicating a new pattern in the consumption of news. Such was its impact that universities, schools and churches moved quickly to stitch its issues into coursework and Bible studies.

‘Skinny kid with a funny name’ – 2004 DNC keynote

The cometh the man cometh the hour speech. There was something almost gawkish about the young, unknown Senator when he bounded onto the stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but as soon as he spoke, the air crackled with political magic. He had us at hello.

Framing the speech as a narrative on hope, Obama wasted no time in winning the crowd with opening barbs such as, “let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely” and “in no country on earth is my story even possible,” before launching into a perfect, potted history of his life and how it embodied the American dream.

I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

Classic lines ensued, such as “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is a United States of America” or “the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes America has a place for him too.”

With four minutes to go, chants of “Obama! Obama!” were rippling through the crowds while an intrigued Hilary Clinton is spotted joining in on the standing ovation, no doubt drawing immediate battle lines in her head.

Announcing executive actions on gun violence – January 2016

2016 AP Year End Photos President Barack Obama wipes away tears from his eyes as he speaks in the East Room of the White House on Jan 5 2016, about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence. Source: Carolyn Kaster

It was quite a remarkable sight: a President’s face was streamed with tears, flanked by grieving parents of lost children, making an impassioned plea on the highly divisive issue of gun violence.

What started as a rather sombre affair to announce a suite of executive actions on gun control, quickly turned into the most emotional public episode of Obama’s entire presidency.

Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.

It’s a speech that won’t necessarily be remembered for its rhetorical skill, phrasing or visual imagery, but for something even better than all those things – emotional purity. It also demonstrated that despite the trappings that 8 years in office brings, and a near rock-star status, Obama still possessed a unique ability able to connect with the feelings of ordinary Americans.

The Washington Post described it as “part eulogy, part admission of political failure and part constitutional lecture on the Second Amendment.”

Yes We Can – 2008 New Hampshire primary

Probably the most memorable campaign speech in living memory, “Yes We Can” is a masterclass in public speaking and a stunning commentary on hope, unity and American values.

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Originally written as a victory speech for the 2008 New Hampshire primary which Obama was widely expected to win, the only change made after he lost was a line congratulating Clinton at the very beginning but otherwise the speech remained exactly the same.

We will begin the next great chapter in America’s story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea. Yes. We. Can.

Powerful and defiant in tone, it symbolises hope in the face of adversity, and features stunning phrases such as “it was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.”

It also features some classical rhetorical devices such as repetition, contrast, and the tricolon, or rule of three, leading to a revival of popular interest in oratory and speechwriting. The actual “Yes We Can” slogan was originally used as a slogan in the 2004 campaign.

2015 Selma speech

Delivered at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, the purpose of this pin-drop speech was to mark 50 years on from the “Bloody Sunday” Selma to Montgomery march but its impact was far greater than that.

We gather here to honour the courage of ordinary Americans… men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice.

Put simply, it is Obama at his oratorical best: soaring biblical tones, and grand, sweeping visions of American history, values and virtues. Spoken against a backdrop of the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the stagecraft alone was nothing short of wizardry.

Obama invoked memories of the Selma protestors as a means to inspire younger generations to “push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom”. Some commentators later argued that the speech was a nuanced smack at conservative detractors like Rudy Guiliani who claimed Obama didn’t love America.

As the world prepares for an uncertain road ahead under the new Trump presidency, the only certainty is that gifted orators like Barack Obama come along once in a lifetime.

Amy Rose Harte is an account manager with The Communications Clinic, a public relations and media training firm in Dublin. She is an expert in media management, PR, crisis communications and speechwriting.

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