The build-up was intense: Eloquent speeches by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and others; then a moving video tribute narrated by George Clooney.
The expectation was high. Obama has already delivered some of the most memorable speeches of his generation.
The president did not disappoint. Here’s how he came through:
As you would expect, the speech was elegantly written. Note the power of the short, pithy statement. You can use a string of short statements to build to a moment of power:
Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future. And in this election, you can do something about it.
Or you can use a short statement to punctuate a longer point, closing a paragraph with one:
I’ve signed trade agreements that are helping our companies sell more goods to millions of new customers — goods that are stamped with three proud words: made in America.
You can use it to demonstrate power when you go on the attack:
My opponent — my opponent said that it was tragic to end the war in Iraq. And he won’t tell us how he’ll end the war in Afghanistan. Well, I have, and I will.
Or you can use it to make a point pop:
We’ve been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way–that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing.
Pithy statements are powerful because they are ear-catching and easy to deliver.
Obama used humor during his speech to great effect. He greeted his daughters in the crowd with the admonition that yes, they would have to go to school in the morning. He talked about the political gridlock that the country has endured: “If you’re sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me, so am I.” He characterized his opponent’s plan as reaching for tax cuts in every situation: “Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.” About Romney’s foreign policy experience:
After all, you don’t call Russia our number-one enemy — and not al Qaeda — unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War time warp. You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.
The humor was pointed and delivered in an understated way, with a gentle smile and a pause to let the punchline sink in. It was an effective tool to humanize Obama, and was well received by the audience.
Obama has a sense of musicality that he uses to great effect when he speaks. Some of his delivery is understated prose, an everyday sort of conversation (e.g. “If you can’t afford health insurance, hope that you don’t get sick. If a company releases toxic pollution into the air your children breathe, well, that’s just the price of progress. If you can’t afford to start a business or go to college, take my opponent’s advice and ‘borrow money from your parents.’”). Some of it is quiet, understated, using a low volume to emphasize the seriousness of a point (”We understand that this democracy is ours”). And some of it soars.
Obama builds to crescendos by using a range of notes in his speaking voice, often going up along a scale; he builds in volume; and he increases his pace and uses pauses to great effect. For example:
But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems — any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.
One of the knocks against Obama coming into the convention was the perception (held by those in his own party as well as by Republicans) that he is arrogant. You can see Obama trying to repair this perception by several expressions of humility, which he was able to deliver in way that sounded genuine, in moments like this one:
I don’t know what party these men and women belong to. I don’t know if they’ll vote for me. But I know that their spirit defines us. They remind me, in the words of Scripture, that ours is a future filled with hope. And if you share that faith with me, if you share that hope with me, I ask you tonight for your vote.
Another memorable moment—demonstrating humility by reaching for the image of Lincoln, and of the President praying for guidance:
And while I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.”
Obama also used power strategically during the speech. He argued for his favorite programs by characterizing them as the things he will never give up for tax cuts for the wealthy:
I refuse to go along with that, and as long as I’m president, I never will. (Cheers, applause.) I refuse to ask middle-class families to give up their deductions for owning a home or raising their kids just to pay for another millionaire’s tax cut. (Cheers, applause.) I refuse to ask students to pay more for college or kick children out of Head Start programs to eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans who are poor and elderly or disabled all so those with the most can pay less. I’m not going along with that.
You can watch the delivery of this section here:
Notice how Obama builds power by increasing his volume, even incorporating the cheers of the audience to give the speech extra energy.
Another power moment:
You know, I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention. Times have changed, and so have I. I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.
This statement got a huge reaction in the hall. It was a statement of authority, reminding the listener that he has done the job, has lived it through good times and difficult ones, has made tough decisions. That statement has unspoken implications: first, that Romney cannot claim this same credential, and second, that the birther, non-American, foreign interloper garbage is nonsense. By saying, I’m the president, Obama is saying, I am an American, and I am your leader. You can watch this moment here:
“You were the change.”
Finally, the speech was successful because if its impassioned theme. Obama has struggled to top the theme of his previous campaign, “Change you can believe in.” In this speech, he turned that theme around, telling his audience that they are the change that the country needed. It was an effective turn of phrase that brought the audience to its feet:
So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens — you were the change.
You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage. You did that.
You’re the reason a young man in Colorado who never thought he’d be able to afford his dream of earning a medical degree is about to get that chance. You made that possible.
You’re the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she’s ever called home; why selfless soldiers won’t be kicked out of the military because of who they are or who they love; why thousands of families have finally been able to say to the loved ones who served us so bravely: “Welcome home.”
We expected that Obama would be able to offer a top-notch speech. We were not disappointed.