Barack Obama Journeys From "Yes We Can" to the Imperial "I"

Yes, he can? Not by himself.


By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

"The Great I Am." That's what Dorothy Walker Bush, the matriarch of the Bush family, used to call it when one of her children used too many "I's" in a sentence. Casting it in biblical terms, she'd tell them, "Nobody likes The Great I Am. Don't be talking about yourself."

As a young boy, George H. W. Bush told her he'd scored three goals in a soccer game. "That's nice, George, but how did the team do?" Later, his parents sent him to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., for high school, where the school motto was "Non sibi," Latin for "Not for self." Between his parents and the school, he got the message.

As President Bush #41, he regularly told us in the speechwriting office when prepared remarks had too many "I's." He hated saying things like, "I passed a crime bill that protects victims rights," because he felt that was inconsiderate of all the other people in the White House and Congress who worked on the crime bill. He was uncomfortable with the idea of a presidential library at first— " too much about me, " he reportedly said—and it explains why he's never written his memoirs.

I tell you all this because I've noticed lately that President Obama used to be that way, too. "Yes We Can" was typical of the way he used to speak—his speeches were heavy on words like "we" and "let us" and "together." Like Dorothy Bush, he was more interested in whether the team won than whether he scored a goal.

But lately he's moved from the first person plural to the first person singular. Apparently I'm not the only one who's picked up on it. Stanley Fish blogs in the New York Times that he listened to the president's speech on the GM takeover and actually kept track of how many times Obama used the word "I" (BTW, it was 34 times):

I heard the full emergence of a note that had been sounded only occasionally in the two-plus years since the announcement of his candidacy. It was the note of imperial possession, the accents and cadences of a man supremely aware of his authority and more than comfortable with its exercise.

George Will's column earlier this week points out that the president has become "inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun," as evidenced in the GM takeover speech. Terence Jeffrey of CSN wrote a similar piece about the same speech titled "I, Barack," talking about the economic implications of the switch from "we" to "I" and pointing out this paragraph as an example:

"From the beginning, I made it clear that I would not put any more tax dollars on the line if it meant perpetuating the bad business decisions that had led these companies to seek help in the first place," he said. "I refused to let these companies become permanent wards of the state, kept afloat on an endless supply of taxpayer money. In other words, I refused to kick the can down the road."

Is this a sign of the president taking possession of not only GM but of the entire mantle of government, or is this the beginning of the end of any humility on his part? Or is it both? For a guy who supposedly admires President Bush #41, he could learn a thing or two about avoiding The Great I Am.

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Corrected on : Corrected on 06/10/09: This article has been corrected from an earlier version.