This is the speech Barack Obama gave just two weeks before the election in 2008. Actually, that’s not exactly true. In fact, it’s not even vaguely true. But you can almost imagine him giving that kind of speech. You can hear his strangely staccato cadences, his stopping. And then. Starting at. Odd points. But it’s so deeply effective, and people are swept away by his rhetoric. They feel as if in the presence of something transcendent, something great, something special. A new dawn is breaking, a new world is being born, and they are witness to this moment. Amen and hallelujah. And all this because someone like Obama is so fine at the art of speechifying. He can take words and turn them into lightning bolts that strike deep into the hearts of those who listen. He can conjure images from the depths and prestidigitate phantasmagoria from the ether. He can convince us that truly something good will come to us, if only we go with him. Yes he can.
And that’s a problem. Because he can’t. Between the fantasy world the orator creates with words and the real world a President lives in (along with the rest of us), there is a chasm that can never be crossed. And as the great orator’s words soar into the stratosphere, so too do the expectations of those listening. They actually believe that the words spoken will become deeds done. But unlike the words which can keep flying forever – and if they never return, so much the better for the orator – at some point those expectations will have to return to earth, and the landing is unlikely to be gentle.
So what is to be done? Take a leaf, I suggest, from those who ingeniously temper their words so as not to raise expectations to a fever pitch. There’s no disappointment when your President says things like this: ‘I'm the commander -- see, I don't need to explain -- I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president.’ Or this: ‘I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family’. When George W. Bush opened his mouth and the words fell out, people knew what they were getting. He offered incomprehensible idiocy, and that’s what they got, and you can’t blame a man when he delivers on what he promised.
'What am I saying? How would I know?'