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President Obama and The Power of Words

Tuesday night, at some moment during my CNN and BBC viewing marathon of inaugural activities and the apparent zenith of Obamamania, one of the many political analysts/commentators referred to “the power of words”. Although I’ve read one of Barack’s books and seen dozens of his debates and speeches, never underwhelmed by the man’s use of language, the seemingly anonymous, nonchalant and almost cliché recognition of the 44th President’s oratory skill and the power of his words really stuck in my mind. More than his policy proposals, more than his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq, even more than the Internet, the most powerful tool that Obama has used to climb to the pinnacle of political – not to mention cultural – power, has been language, both written and spoken.

One could very easily go back to his days as a community organizer or as the president of the Harvard Law Review, or perhaps even further, to appreciate the crucial importance of language in Barack Obama’s expeditious rise to power.  He published his first book in 1995, but it, along with himself, only gained national popularity after his keynote address in the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, Hillary incessantly bemoaned how the oratory displayed in that keynote address undeservedly transformed a young and inexperienced state legislator into a celebrity and potential presidential candidate. His second book was published in 2006 and quickly reached bestseller status. The impressively favorable reception of the book apparently encouraged Obama to run for the presidency.

President Obama’s powerful use of language was evidenced time after time, rally after rally, speech after speech, debate after debate (28 in all), throughout the longest presidential campaign in U.S. history. Almost a year ago, in February of 2008, the Wall Street Journal published an article with the title here borrowed. In the same month, while Barack was consolidating his nomination bid against Hillary in the Democratic primaries, the Washington Post published an article titled “Finding Political Strength in the Power of Words”. That was before his “Race Speech” in Philadelphia. That was before he spoke to 200,000 in Berlin. That was before he accepted the nomination in a packed stadium in Denver, before he outdebated his Republican in all three debates, long before his victory speech in Grant Park, and nearly a year before this week’s inaugural speech which has generated so much attention to, and frequently adulation of, President Obama’s oratory in recent days.

Of the many lessons the 2008 presidential election may have taught, or refreshed, that which to me has proven to be the most salient is the power of words. Yes, words are extremely powerful. They may or may not be able to move mountains, but they sure can take you to the White House. And this isn’t a lesson just for the politically ambitious. Words matter, for everyone. Referring to Obama’s oratory as “a study in positive engagement”, one blogger concluded: “I’m rewriting the words in my life to take my own lead in the race for a fuller life”.