Great Speech. Now What?

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Fineman

Obama and the limits of personal oratory.

Barack Obama believes in the power of heroic narrative. As a teenager he loved the comic-book exploits of Conan the Barbarian and Spider-Man; as an adult he wrote a best-selling autobiography that reads like a coming-of-age novel. For nearly two decades his political adviser has been David Axelrod, whom I first met in 1983 when he was a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune. "Axe" got the scoops, but he could also package them into smooth page-one pieces. As a media consultant, he has a gift for storytelling. Axelrod records his day by scribbling in a large black manuscript book--the kind a novelist might use.

It was The Narrative--Obama's life and the telling of it--that produced the Obama presidency. Many if not most of its key moments were speeches: Chicago in 2002, Boston in 2004, Philadelphia and Denver in 2008. The crafting of this story was always a joint Obama-Axelrod enterprise. Last week they unveiled a new chapter in the saga. Our hero has been attacked by all the evil creatures in Washington and vows to tame them, either by his charm or with his bare hands. He promises to create jobs, cut the deficit, cut more taxes (but raise them on the rich), and finally redeem his promise to end the corrupt, insipid, and selfish ways of the capital.

In the House chamber and on TV, it worked. Obama was forceful and shrewd, amiable and reasonable. He commanded the room (except for the stone-faced members of the Supreme Court) with ease. Judging from the instant polls that night, the public loved it. As a piece of political stagecraft, it impressed me. But in the cold light of day, I do have a "but"--in fact, more than one.

First, the attribute that gave the speech its force also gives me pause. The address sometimes seemed more about Obama himself than about the country. At times it was not so much his thoughts on the state of the Union as it was his thoughts on the state of his presidency, and on our view of him. "Now, I am not naive," the president said. "I never thought that the mere fact of my election would usher in peace, harmony, and some post-partisan era." And later: "I have never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone." (Now he tells us!) Then, in the closing flourish: "I don't quit. …