Robert Frost said a liberal is a man too broad minded to take his own side in a quarrel. Last Thursday night President Obama (finally) took his own side and gave the speech many have been waiting to hear. Still bending toward compromise, it was punchy, simple, and stirring. He stood up for ordinary America against the interests of the rich and influential, and argued (finally) from America's history against the anti-government feeling that has only swelled since the mid-terms. Simplifying pro-government reasoning, he argued that while individualism has its strengths, there are some things we can only do together. It was a breath of air for anyone who's been watching the GOP suck the oxygen out of US politics.
Unavoidably, the speech participates in the very politics it was trying to circumvent, and doubtless the pundits of both sides will have their way with it. One of the criticisms already levelled, by Maureen Dowd, is that talking doesn't solve anything. She wrote in the NY Times that Obama is suffering from the “speech illusion”: the idea that he can come down from the mountaintop, read the teleprompter, cast his magic spell, and ascend the mountain while everyone scurries to do his bidding. I think in the case of Obama, coming down from the mountaintop to deliver a fiery speech is exactly what he can do, exactly what he should do.
While generally all talk and no action is political failure, sometimes there is virtue in simply saying what needs to be said. Saying what those who have no voice have been saying unheard, and saying it loud. Obama's jobs bill has yet to go through, but his words mattered. Words can restore dignity, sometimes via indignation. They can break rhetorical cycles, gauge or change the public mood, set people on a fresh course. Obama has a unique capacity to do just that. Kevin Rudd (an infinitely less gifted speaker) was blistered by those who thought his apology to the stolen generations was a meaningless gesture, adrift from action. Watching the faces of the Indigenous people massed outside Parliament House that day, I couldn't believe the words weren't important in themselves. Words that acknowledged the past, made a space for grief to be aired, made real the sufferings that had for so long lain unsung. Words reify experience; they set it down indelibly in the long records of human life. As Shakespeare knew, and Obama trusts, words can make and unmake worlds.