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The Message Is the Message

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Photo-illustration by James Porto  

Despite his agility in skipping from topic to topic, the president is clearly most comfortable when he can drill deep into one. During the presidential campaign, when Reverend Wright’s antics threatened to steer Obama clear off the rails, his advisers had varying ideas about how to handle the situation. Ultimately, though, it was Obama who decided on the solution: He’d give a 37-minute speech about race.

In the days when just a handful of media outlets drove the news, such a move would have been politically contraindicated, if not outright suicidal. The speech contained no pithy or rhyming sound bites (“Mend it, don’t end it,” “Read my lips”). It practically defied quoting. It demanded, rather, to be heard or read in its entirety. Yet within 48 hours, more than 1.6 million viewers tuned in, making it the single-most-watched video on YouTube for that period.

There’s a reason for this. Sound bites, says Clay Shirky, the NYU new-media philosopher and recent author of Here Comes Everybody, were a product of media scarcity, when public figures had a finite amount of time and space to make their points. Now we live in a world of “Publish, then filter,” he points out, rather than “Filter, then publish,” a time when the question is “Why not film this?” rather than “Why film this?” This makes Obama our first post-sound-bite president. If he wants to give a 37-minute speech about race, he can give a 37-minute speech about race, knowing that millions of Americans (now more than 6 million) will eventually hear it, even if they fail to catch it in real time. Not only is ubiquity strategy in a world of unlimited content, volume is too.

Reviving the long-form address may seem strange in an era when the 140-character tweet and two-sentence blog post form a major part of our communications repertoire. But Nate Silver, the founder of fivethirtyeight.com, points out that the long form may, in fact, be a natural part of it. “If you speak and leave out details,” he notes, “bloggers will fill them in.” And for those who despair at the telegraphic nature of Twitter and blog posts, Obama’s long speeches—like long books and long movies—are a canny form of counterprogramming.

During his presidency, Obama has repeatedly chosen a long speech over staccato remarks or scattered statements by surrogates. When the Senate refused to include funding in an appropriations bill to shut down Guantánamo Bay, he spoke for over 50 minutes at the National Archives about civil liberties. When he made overtures to the Arab world in Cairo, he spoke for 55 minutes. When congressional Republicans first began to mount their resistance to his health-care bill, he flew to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and conducted a 62-minute town hall. Laurence Tribe, Obama’s onetime mentor at Harvard Law School, says that the president’s speeches remind him of “carefully worded judicial opinions—he avoids overreaching, he carefully states opposing arguments and considerations. He gently leads the viewers or readers or listeners to their own conclusions rather than ramming one down their throats.” Lincoln used to do this in his debates with Douglas, which raises a tantalizing possibility about the future: Perhaps the post-sound-bite age will seem more like the pre-sound-bite age, when most politicians could hold their own in a debate.

Obama’s civil-liberties speech at the National Archives is a good example of what Tribe was talking about. Obama opened by summing up the two opposing positions: “I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe,” he said. “I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation … ” As he went on to make his case, he recruited the words and deeds of his adversaries, rather than inflaming partisan tensions, noting that McCain had campaigned against torture and that Bush had released the bulk of the Guantánamo detainees. He co-opted a favorite argument of his adversaries, too, remarking that Guantánamo had become an exemplar of inefficient government. “We’re cleaning up something that is—quite simply—a mess,” he said. As he was winding down, he anticipated the political repercussions of closing Guantánamo, hoping to defang critics before they could bare their teeth: “You can almost picture the direct-mail pieces … designed to frighten the population. I get it.”

George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist and author of the The Political Mind, has pointed out that Barack Obama is one of the few Democratic politicians who naturally uses “deep framing,” or an implicit moral architecture and worldview to change how the nation sees larger issues. (Bill Clinton, by contrast, triangulated so frequently that he left his party without a coherent vision. “Instead,” says Lakoff, “he found lots of small things they couldn’t disagree with.”) One can certainly give a short speech with a deep frame. But the longer Obama’s speeches run, the more opportunity he has to establish and reestablish an underlying worldview—almost without our noticing. For Democrats, who’ve ceded the language of values to Republicans for the better part of a quarter-century, repeated modeling of such a tactic is quite useful.


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