Obama's Speeches: Moral Agency & Democracy

The President’s speeches in Cairo and Normandy were both remarkable the way his speeches are almost always remarkable. The delivery is deft, the oratory seems matched to the moment and the orator himself is at once so provocatively different from his predecessors starting with the color of his skin and yet he is so supremely comfortable in his own skin, President Obama’s gift for rhetoric harkens back to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt or Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Political rhetoric functions at several levels, and the most over-looked in this media age of soundbites and point-counterpoint on cable news is also the most important. President Obama rekindles a sense of moral agency in his speeches and it is that sense of moral agency which is the sine qua non of democracy. While commentators were arguing whether the President had suggested moral equivalence between Jewish and Palestinian suffering (he did not), the sentence that jumped out at me was less controversial: "So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it." In the Mideast, where everyone seems a prisoner of the past, this simple line was the basis for an alternative vision of the continued hatred and mistrust that has plagued the region.


The effects of the Cairo speech remains to be seen. The next morning, the Post had a picture of an Egyptian family gathered around their television set watching the President. How did they understand the sentence quoted above? What do they see in this man who has become leader of a nation many Muslims view with such hostility? And, most importantly, will the good will he generates translate some day into political change in these countries, where we must currently fear democratic elections because they are more likely to produce a victory for Hamas and its ilk than not? One thing is certain: Nothing will change until people feel it is in their power to change their own circumstances, to set aside the legacy of their history and pursue a better tomorrow.

The circumstance of the President’s speech at Normandy could scarcely have been more different. The site is, of course, the place were simple men gave martial effect to the political and philosophic vision enunciated in the Atlantic Charter. Here the United States, whose political isolation in the prewar years had, alongside the hope-filled blindness of the governments in Europe, made Hitlerism possible, redeemed all. Here began the reconquest of Europe for the forces of justice and civilization. Here "the West" showed itself not a liberating force in the world, and a united one at that.

Yet, in the West these past years we were lulled into thinking that the impersonal forces of "globalization" would sweep us into new prosperities. Our philosophers, especially our liberal philosophers, have begun to tell us that science will unlock all the secrets of our humanity, that we are, after all, subject to predestination, just not of the Calvinistic kind but of the DNA kind. Mr. Greenspan assured us the laws of economics would result in the market’s self-governance without any need for the intervention of moral concerns. In the last months of the economic collapse, the word one hears over and again from people beset by their problems is that they feel "powerless."

"For you remind us that in the end, human destiny is not determined by forces beyond our control," The President said, addressing the veterans of that fateful day. "You remind us that our future is not shaped by mere chance or circumstance.  Our history has always been the sum total of the choices made and the actions taken by each individual man and woman.  It has always been up to us."

It is these invocations of human moral agency that are, I believe, the President’s most important rhetorical accomplishment. It is why Joe six-pack responds to him so strongly. He reminds us that democracy works when citizens set about it, when they bend themselves not just to self-governance but to involvement in the government of their nation,  and thus bend the arc of history too. The impersonal is the enemy of democracy. In a culture drowning in irony, fascincated by but often made to feel unequal to the advances in science, and ill-equipped by their education to unite the impulses of their faith with the dictates of their reason, you may or may not agree with the President’s moral vision, but all must applaud his moral voice.


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9 years 7 months ago
You failed to mention the great rehetorical skills of President Ronald Reagan.  His famous words at Normandy were brilliant and his delievery was second to none. President Bill Clinton was also a great orator.


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