BROOKE GLADSTONE: Whoever ends up running in 2008, wrote Paul Waldman on TomPaine.com recently, Barack Obama, quote, "At the very least, offers Democrats a lesson in how powerful rhetoric can capture and exploit a political moment." Waldman is a senior fellow at the progressive think tank Media Matters for America. Paul, welcome back to the show.
PAUL WALDMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So even before Obama was elected senator, he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in July of 2004, and it was the first time that most Americans laid eyes on the guy. What did he accomplish in that maiden TV appearance?
PAUL WALDMAN: What he did was he firmly created a political identity for himself. He starts off the speech by talking about his own heritage, who his parents were and his grandparents were. Smart politicians know that politics is really about identity more so than issues. And so if you look at the emotional climax of the speech, it comes when he's giving a litany about hope.
BARACK OBAMA: It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs, the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores, the hope of a young Naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta, the hope of a mill worker's son who dares to defy the odds, the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. [APPLAUSE AND CHEERING]
PAUL WALDMAN: We look up at that moment, as he's standing on the stage, and the question is, does America have a place for him, too? And, of course, the answer is yes, because here's this figure of Barack Obama giving this speech to millions of Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, actually, he answers that question himself in a different part of the speech, when he describes how the red states and the blue states really aren't all that different, after all.
BARACK OBAMA: We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents pokin' around in our libraries in the red states. [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] We coach Little League in the blue states, and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]
PAUL WALDMAN: So what Obama's doing here is he's taking what could be disadvantages for him in those two passages of his -- multiracial heritage and this name that sounds strange to American ears, and he's turning them into advantages. He's saying that he is the embodiment of what we want America to be. We want America to get beyond these racial divides. We want America to be able to get beyond the red/blue divides. And he's offering himself as kind of the vehicle, the expression of the solution to those problems.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But in a speech he gave a year later, that you've taken note of, Paul - it was at the commencement of Knox College, and it wasn't a speech that many people heard -- he was much more partisan, a lot more ideological, and he even takes some jabs at what conservatives, like our President, call the ownership society.
BARACK OBAMA: It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say that those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford -- tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who've lost their job, life isn't fair. It let's us say to the child whose born into poverty, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But there's a problem. It won't work. It ignores our history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in the D.N.C. speech, he's very inclusive. There doesn't seem to be a bad person or a bad idea [LAUGHS] possible within it. And in this one, there's a slew of bad ideas, usually conservative ones, that have been defeated by progressive ones that have allowed America to become the great country that it is. There's an inherent contradiction, isn't there?
PAUL WALDMAN: Maybe there is and maybe there isn't. He seems to be saying in the D.N.C. speech that the things that divide us are not so great as we might think from watching what happens in the media or what happens in Washington. In the Knox College speech, he's saying, essentially, that conservatives were wrong, but he's not really making an argument about whether or not they're bad people. So he is walking a fine line there, and maybe it won't be successful or maybe it will. We'll have to see how he continues to reframe that if he becomes a candidate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These speeches are really impressive. I mean, they fall beautifully, gracefully on the ear. Do you think that he represents a step forward or maybe a step backward into a great tradition of American political rhetoric that's been lacking lately?
PAUL WALDMAN: Well, political rhetoric is always changing. One of the things that Obama does, and there's actually a parallel with Ronald Reagan, Reagan, at his rhetorical high points of his presidency, was always talking about us as Americans. Ordinary people were the heroes of the stories that he told. George W. Bush, in contrast, is the hero of the stories that George W. Bush tells.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me an example of that.
PAUL WALDMAN: If you look at the video that they made for Reagan's reelection convention in 1984, the high point of that is a speech that he gave on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, and they intercut it with some new material where he's talking about the men who took the cliffs at Normandy. And he says afterward, where do we find such men? We find them where we've always found them -- in the shops, on the main streets, in the offices. They're the product of the freest society the world has ever known. Bush's reelection convention, on the other hand, had a video that was just as artfully produced. And what was it about? It was about George Bush going out and throwing the first pitch at Yankee Stadium after 9/11. It's very different from Reagan's rhetoric, which is about who we are as Americans. And Obama does a lot of that same kind of talk. He wants us to see him as the embodiment of what we want to believe about America. There is a real parallel with Reagan there. Whether that will be successful, I think, remains to be seen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks very much, Paul.
PAUL WALDMAN: It's been my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Waldman, senior fellow at Media Matters for America and author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, Republican ads this season don't use the R word. And you know who they don't mention? The guy who runs the country.