Columnist: Obama's Rhetoric Is Overrated The presidential hopeful has gained wide-spread attention for his inspirational rhetoric, but some aren't impressed. Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman discusses why he thinks Obama's speeches are overrated.
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Columnist: Obama's Rhetoric Is Overrated

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Columnist: Obama's Rhetoric Is Overrated

Columnist: Obama's Rhetoric Is Overrated

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

William F. Buckley, Jr. was inspired by politicians who could give a good speech. Politicians like Winston Churchill. Today, many pundits have talked about how Barack Obama's speeches are inspiring a new generation.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people - yes we can. Yes we can.

BRAND: Senator Barack Obama speaking in New Hampshire. Not everyone is moved by his skills as an orator. Gideon Rachman is a columnist with the Financial Times in London. He's written a column on this recently, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.

Mr. GIDEON RACHMAN (Financial Times): Thank you very much.

BRAND: Now, you saw him live there in New Hampshire and on television since. What are your impressions of a typical Obama speech?

Mr. RACHMAN: Well, I must say the thing that got me thinking about it is that my impression seemed to be very different from everybody else's. If you actually read Obama's words, particularly the stuff which he's most praised for, the most inspirational stuff, the inverted commas, the yes-we-can stuff that you, for example, just played a clip of, they don't seem to me to actually say anything. They're really pretty empty.

And so, no, I'm not particularly moved by Obama's abilities as a speaker. He has a nice voice, but he doesn't say much with it.

BRAND: Well, now, that's something that Senator Clinton has repeatedly said, that he's all words and no action.

Mr. RACHMAN: Well, I don't know whether you can say he's all words and no action. What I'd say is that Senator Clinton actually concedes a bit too much to him because I think that the Clinton campaign's line is, yeah, he gives wonderful speeches, but you know, who knows whether he can do anything. I would say he doesn't actually give wonderful speeches. He's a bit of blank slate.

And maybe that's why the speeches are successful, because he sticks to these very airy generalities - hope, change, opportunity - very traditional American themes, as far as I can see, and they do strike a chord and in a sense his personal biography encapsulates some of those themes.

BRAND: So why do you think then he is so attractive on the stump, that people are clamoring to hear him, that when you watch, I haven't seen him live, but when you watch it on TV you see the crowd just roaring in approval.

Mr. RACHMAN: Perhaps at this particular moment in American history, with the economy in trouble, with the Iraq war dragging on, it does need somebody to reassert those kind of basic themes and to tell people, okay, things can get better even if he's not gonna particularly specific about it. One of the things that makes me a bit uncomfortable, I think there is an element of hysteria about it.

I mean a lot of political rallies deliberately try and drum up a kind of rock concert atmosphere; that's sort of what they do. But I think that he really is now treated like a rock star. So more or less whatever he does, the crowds excite each other. You know, he comes on the stage, inevitably there's gonna be cheering, and just that sort of atmosphere whips you up.

And you know, hats off to him if he can generate that and it works for him and it gets elected him elected president. You know, in a sense that's what being a successful politician is all about. But I do think it's worthwhile occasionally taking a step back, actually just reading what he's saying, and saying, well, you know, what does this actually amount to?

BRAND: And you actually note in your column that he's actually got more substance than style. You kind of reverse it, that you think that he actually, you know, there is something going on underneath there, but that the speeches themselves are the ones that are lacking.

Mr. RACHMAN: Sure. What he's doing is a deliberate political tactic. It's not that all that he is capable of is empty generalities, it's that I think they find that empty generalities couched in sufficiently inspirational language are effective. And you can see why. Because as he, you know, he points out, as everybody points out, America has a very divided political culture at the moment.

The more you get into detail, the more you pin your flag to particular policies, the more likely you are to either bore people or to antagonize them. Whereas if you appeal to their emotions rather than to reason, maybe that's more effective. You can bring people along, or you can bring more people along.

BRAND: Giddeon Rachman is a columnist of with the Financial Times in London. His recent column is titled "Obama and the Art of Empty Rhetoric." Giddeon Rachman, thanks for joining us.

Mr. RACHMAN: Thank you.

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