Obama: Speech Creator-In-Chief

“We are governed by words, the laws are graven in words, and literature is the sole means of keeping these words living and accurate.”
Ezra Pound


Barack Obama is the chief speechwriter in his campaign.

It may seem to be a small thing, but it is his ability to tailor the cadence and tinker with the individual word choices that allows his rhetoric to work so well with his unorthodox style of delivery.

For the most part, his speeches are simply constructed around the same story he has been telling since the Democratic convention in 2004 - which is his own life story, expanded or contracted to frame the issue of the day, combined with the onward and upward supplication of “this is the moment, this is the time”.

In yesterday’s speech in Berlin, he artfully used the words he traditionally has employed to illustrate himself and his journey – “imperfect”, “improbable”, “mistakes” – to describe America itself.

Obama’s head speechwriter, a 26-year-old who used to write for Kerry, says his job is like “being Ted Williams’s batting coach.” The campaign says Obama would write all his own speeches if he had the time.

I can see him, like he's pictured above, reading through draft after draft, pen in hand, striking unwieldy phrases, reducing complex transitions to simple images, much like did at the Harvard Law Review and later with his own two books.

His precise use of language is deceptive. The occasional academic term that pops out usually means there is no other word that will do. Obama seems to have become more comfortable, as this year has progressed, with exploiting the power of alliteration and repetition to create a crescendo effect, much like a drum roll, that he sprinkles throughout the body of his speeches to keep the audience involved.

Excerpted from "Raise High The Rafters" by Sam Anderson:

A major reason that Obama’s rhetoric seems to soar so high is that our expectations have sunk so low. In a new book, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, Elvin T. Lim subjects all the words ever publicly intoned by American presidents to a thorough statistical analysis—and he finds, unsurprisingly, an alarmingly steady decline.

A century ago, Lim writes, presidential speeches were pitched at a college reading level; today, they’re down to eighth grade, and if the trend continues, next century’s State of the Union addresses will be conducted at the level of “a comic strip or a fifth-grade textbook.” (“Iran’s crawling with bad guys: BAP!”)

Since 1913, the length of the average presidential sentence has fallen from 35 words to 22. Between Nixon and the second Bush, the average presidential sound bite shrank from 42 seconds to 7. Today’s State of the Unions inspire roughly 30 seconds of applause for every 60 seconds of speech.


Sam Anderson of New York magazine takes a deeper look at Obama’s speeches, deconstructing his style, rhythms and rhetoric.


Text of Berlin Speech




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