John McCain and Barack Obama: How They Speak to Voters

The ability to inspire through the spoken word is an important presidential attribute.

By + More

Speechmaking does not make a president. If it did, Thomas Jefferson, who abhorred public oratory, would rank among the least of America's chief executives. But there is no question that the ability to inspire through the spoken word has contributed directly to the attainments and reputations of many of the greatest presidents. Even more than explaining policies or setting new directions, a president's speech shows how well he hears the people—their hopes, their fears, their best and worst angels—and, most crucially, how he uses what he hears to achieve his goals.

So what do the speechmaking styles of the two presidential candidates tell us about how each might lead?

In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, John McCain's rhetoric was, for the most part, unadorned. McCain's most passionate words and delivery come in his accounts of his discovery of a higher purpose. In this conversion story, a once reckless warrior and individualist is humbled by his experiences but finds something worth fighting for: his nation. McCain may have trouble talking about religion, but he is completely at ease when it comes to the American civic religion. He makes his points mainly through the repetition of key words ("fight" is used more than 30 times in the acceptance speech) and phrases such as, "My country saved me." McCain emphasizes that he is a "maverick" who will put "Country First" ahead of political party. But the language of reconciliation is overshadowed by the language of struggle and solitary striving. He appeals to other Americans to join him in serving the nation, but his urgings lack eloquence ("Enlist in our armed forces. Become a teacher" is a long way from Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you..."). McCain's oratory appeals to people who want to place their trust in a brave, independent-minded leader who is confident that he knows what is best for the country.

Barack Obama's oratory, at its best, is a kind of mirror, turning the people's gaze back upon themselves and forcing them to ask what they want their nation to be. Obama is a skilled writer who can craft compelling expository and argumentative speeches, as he did in response to the controversy involving the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But he is at his best (his foes would say his worst) in those speeches that invoke what might be called the civic beatitude: Blessed are the hopeful, for they shall unify and change the nation. This is strikingly clear in his 2004 Democratic convention keynote, the speech that propelled him into the national limelight, and in his stump speeches. Detractors may dismiss this as fluff, but they underestimate its appeal to younger Americans.

The weakness of Obama's speeches is bound up with their strength: a loftiness that is in danger of soaring beyond this world. The repeated invocations of change and hope can be attacked as an empty mantra. Obama can seem distantly professorial. The danger is the appearance of inauthenticity. McCain belittles his opponent's speechmaking skill as an aspect of his "celebrity" appeal. So far, neither line of attack appears to have rattled Obama. His speeches still aim to transcend the fray of politics as usual.