Obama Gets Back His Mojo

On the Sunday before Election Day, the New York Times (which had enthusiastically endorsed President Obama the previous Sunday) published a negative article in its Magazine section titled, “Still Waiting for the Narrator in Chief.” In the article, Matt Bai, the newspaper’s chief political correspondent, pondered how Mr. Obama had “squandered his narrative mojo.”

Mr. Bai was echoing an opinion voiced by many others throughout the election campaign; particularly  by his Times colleague, Maureen Dowd, who, in one of her many critiques of the president, took a shot at him by referencing a new book, A Nation of Wusses, in which “Democrat Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, wonders how ‘the best communicator in campaign history’ lost his touch.”

Even the president himself agreed. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he said,

The mistake of my first term – couple of years – was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times. It’s funny when I ran everybody said, “well he can give a good speech, but can he actually manage the job?” And in my first two years, I think the notion was, “well, he’s been juggling and managing a lot of stuff, but where’s the story that tells us where he’s going?” And I think that was a legitimate criticism.

That self-evaluation became a self-fulfilling prophecy in his first debate with Mitt Romney. Mr. Obama’s lackluster performance drew a torrent of criticism—including here—and a dip in the opinion polls. But the criticism also served as a wakeup call. He became a man possessed for the rest of the campaign. Reaching back to his breakthrough keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he pulled out all the rhetorical stops from that speech and deployed them throughout the rest of his 2012 campaign: in the second and third debates, in his many stump speeches, and then again in his rousing victory speech.

Readers of The Power Presenter will recall that I analyzed the rhetorical techniques in the 2004 speech. Below you’ll find a reprise of three of the techniques and their equivalents in the 2012 victory speech:

            Antithesis: two contrasting ideas juxtaposed in adjacent phrases.


There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.


it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.

            Anaphora: a phrase repeated in several successive sentences, clauses, or phrases


America! Tonight, if you feel the same energy that I do, if you feel the same urgency that I do, if you feel the same passion that I do, if you feel the same hopefulness that I do — if we do what we must do, then I have no doubt that all across the country, from Florida to Oregon, from Washington to Maine, the people will rise up in November.


This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our university, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

            Anecdote is a brief human interest story (and not a joke.)


I met a young man named Shamus in a V.F.W. Hall in East Moline, Illinois…


And I saw just the other day, in Mentor, Ohio, where a father told the story of his 8-year-old daughter…

As Mr. Obama starts his second term facing many daunting domestic and international challenges, he will have to keep that narrative mojo going at full strength. As Matt Bai put it in the conclusion of his article, “Once you’re in office, the story you tell about and to the country …is, to a large extent, the presidency itself.”