Explicating Obama

The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson devoted a brilliant essay — “The literary Obama” — to explicating Barack Obama’s two books. Now Ferguson returns in “The wit & wisdom of Barack Obama” to explicate Obama’s stump speeches:

Obama’s speeches are full of engaging detail–just not policy detail. With his first book, the memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama proved he was a literary man of great skill, and he knows that the details that catch the attention are personal. So in his best speeches he offers quick, arresting portraits of individual Americans he has met in his travels. Taken together they help him execute a rhetorical pivot that only the greatest populist politicians–FDR in the 1930s, Reagan in 1980–have been able to pull off. You could call it optimistic despair. The overarching theme of Obama’s speeches, and of his campaign, is that America is a fetid sewer whose most glorious days lie just ahead, thanks to the endless ranks of pathetic losers who make it a beacon of hope to all mankind.

Ferguson finds the unifying theme to be our shared status as victims, which raises the question of who the victimizer is:

It’s an uncomfortable question for a candidate who, having drawn such a depressing picture, wants to pivot toward the positive and upbeat and hopeful. Suddenly Obama’s gift for the identifying detail leaves him. With unaccustomed vagueness he refers to “lobbyists” and “overpaid CEOs” but never names them. It’s a world without human villains, improbably enough. Who are the agents of this despair? By whose hand has the country been brought so low?

In short, Ferguson’s explication of the Obamian text shows the candidate to be a particularly talented demagogue.


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