Legacy of Hope: President Obama's Campaign of Rhetoric
The legacy of former President Barack Obama has taken a new turn in academic scrutiny. In the most recent issue of N+1, a literary magazine dedicated to essays on American political and philosophical debates, George Blaustein analyzes a selection of Obama speeches, treating them as a work of literature rather than as independent orations. Blaustein breaks down the structure of an archetypal Obama speech to a formula: Some groups believe X and another group believes Y, and while their views might appear antagonistic, both hold some validity. Instead of further polarizing our country’s subversive factions, we must find the common goals to unite us all under a unified American identity and push toward systemic change as a country. As Blaustein argues, the Obama narrative was built on a self-acknowledged but fabricated version of American history, one that Obama himself could attest to because of his background and experience in both white and black America.
While Blaustein delves into the evolution of the Obama speeches quite holistically, he hesitates to engage with the most radical implication of his work, that recasts Obama as an author narrating American history rather than a figure of American history. In response to George Blaustein’s piece, I wish to call attention to an idea that Blaustein alludes to but never directly states, regarding his deconstruction of the way in which Obama achieved a narrative of hope. By treating Obama not so much as a politician but rather as a narrator, Blaustein’s work lends itself to a poststructuralist analysis, which would investigate the hegemonic power invested in Obama as a narrator of American history. Out of the political cynicism driven by postmodern culture that pervaded the 1970s and 80s, Obama emerged as the first post-postmodern president, a title that reinvents the way we think about historical figures.
Along with the narrative of uniting black America and white America under a common American identity, Obama simultaneously fused together the critical approach of postmodernism and a return to hope and ideals, sentimental notions that postmodernism was highly skeptical of. With the advent of postmodernism, poststructuralist philosophy brought under attack the commonly held modernist belief in objective, foundational truths and sought to demonstrate how facts merely play into grand narratives, used to perpetuate predetermined power structures. This philosophical approach, promoting skepticism of all narratives, influenced political culture at the time due to revelations about the underrepresented casualties in Vietnam and events such as Watergate. Postmodern cynicism seemed to be warranted by the absurdity of American politics and government cover-ups during the era.
While leftist academics actually conceived of this deconstructivist method and have since been the champions of its tradition, the Republican Party was the most effective at tapping into its cultural effects among the public and exploiting it for political gain. During the 1970s and 1980s, which featured the rise of neoliberalism and conservative dominance, the Nixon and Reagan campaigns ran on a platform of cynicism, that can almost be seen as an anti-narrative. As Benjamin Kunkel writes in “Politicopsychopathology” featured in the Winter 2013 issue of N+1, these candidates painted a picture of the US as a dangerous society that had turned to chaos, and whose citizens needed a candidate to bring back order.
While this narrative was hugely based on racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, the right triumphed in addressing a public paranoia that they themselves had created, in part made possible by the postmodern era. This period in American history and culture, where all ideals seemed illusory and truths only partial, allowed for the right’s narrative of fear to manifest because their utopian vision of free market and minimal government interference had always been more defined than the left’s and fit perfectly with the skepticism of government. The left, on the other hand, merely put forward a deconstructivist criticism of the right centered around policy such as economic inequality, civil rights, and environmental reform, but lacking a cohesive vision for America. This trend continued throughout the 90s even under the presidency of Bill Clinton, who utilized many of the same tactics as Nixon and Reagan but with a different party title.
Obama, however, was able to transcend the ethos of cynicism and reclaim the message of hope, which for decades had not been a viable narrative in a postmodern culture. While retaining a pragmatic, critical approach to policy, Obama paved the way for a democratic utopian vision by constructing a narrative, based on hope and ideals, that people’s skeptical postmodern instincts would find difficult to argue with because he himself stood as proof of the American virtues he spoke of. By showing an understanding of both divided sides of the American experience, and asserting that the common ground between the two held the truth (a truth that he himself could attest to), Obama re-convinced the country that hope was the central American ideal, not a fabrication created to maintain political power.
In thinking of Obama as an author of the ongoing novel that is America, we formidably reconceptualize what it means to be a historical figure. The way we receive historical information normally revolves around learning about the people who were apart of a specific period, structurally implying them to be an object of history. While we understand important historical figures to have helped shape the world, we somehow think about them as being enveloped by this independent entity called history. What this linguistic and conceptual framework fails to acknowledge is that these figures actually construct history itself. We only understand the legacy of Obama through a historical view that he in part created, through his speeches.