An American Story: The Speeches of Barack Obama: A Primer

An American Story: The Speeches of Barack Obama: A Primer

by David Olive

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Barack Obama, junior senator from Illinois, first captured America’s attention with his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Now, as presumptive Democratic candidate for President, Obama’s superb and captivating oratory style has earned him comparisons to John F. Kennedy and even Martin Luther King – and on the campaign…  See more details below


Barack Obama, junior senator from Illinois, first captured America’s attention with his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Now, as presumptive Democratic candidate for President, Obama’s superb and captivating oratory style has earned him comparisons to John F. Kennedy and even Martin Luther King – and on the campaign trail Obama has achieved near rock-star status. Obama speaks on themes of race, identity, community, and above all, his hoped-for vision of a New America. His legions of supporters gravitate towards his unblemished idealism. Still, as David Olive writes, “even the most ardent supporters of Barack Obama ... might wonder at times if the mesmerizing orator is more style than substance.” Here, interspersed with the entire text of Obama’s key speeches, Olive explores the controversies: Obama shedding his American flag lapel pin, Reverend Wright, his anti-war stance, his strong Christian faith, and his often racially charged remarks – and the victories: passage for more than 280 bills in his last two years in the Illinois state senate, his actions towards social justice, and his remarkable rise from underdog to potential future president of the United States. Bookended with Obama’s ’04 keynote at the Democratic National Convention and “A More Perfect Union” – called the only historic speech of this 2008 campaign – An American Story exposes politicos, voters, and fans of Obama to the speeches that gave rise to the current phenomenon.

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Editorial Reviews

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"With truly inspirational speeches and the back story for all of them, [this]is a feel-good read . . . [that] stays just as interesting as the actual campaign was or even more so."  —Sacramento Book Review

Sacramento Book Review
With truly inspirational speeches and the back story for all of them, [this]is a feel-good read . . . stays just as interesting as the actual campaign was or even more so.

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ECW Press
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An American Story

The Speeches of Barack Obama

By David Olive


Copyright © 2008 David Olive
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55490-345-0


The Politics of HOPE & REALITY

Among the most devout Christians to seek the presidency, Barack Obama has a near-religious faith in the power of America to restore and reinvent itself in the midst of tough times. He has history on his side. While the Obama candidacy has raised expectations very high, such is Obama's understanding of everyday Americans that he knows their grit and ingenuity can be tapped again to solve not only America's problems, but the world's.

Who is Barack Obama? Arguably, the right man pursuing the right job at precisely the right time. Physically, he exudes an avuncularity that is both calming and suggestive of a wisdom based not on ideology but the facts on the ground. Assaying his second book, The Audacity of Hope, reviewer Michael Tomasky in the New York Review of Books may have done the best job so far of capturing the effect of Obama's appearance: "His eyes and face project ease and warmth and sincerity; nothing about them is hard or inscrutable."

And what drives him? A keen interest in problems and how to solve them, not an uncommon trait among the ablest statesmen; an ambition to restore the American spirit after too many years of setbacks and doubt; and a goal — grandiose or imperative, history will decide — to transform the civic and political culture of the world's oldest major democracy and rid it of the rancor, partisanship, and elitism that have characterized it for long stretches of time, such as this one, for more than two centuries. To replace that tired model with a genuine citizen's democracy in which Americans don't have their say only at the ballot box but every day. A nation where ideas and solutions flow up from the commonwealth of everyday people and aren't imposed by fiat after mysterious decision-making in the halls of power where only the privileged tread. A democracy of unprecedented transparency, where any citizen with access to a television or the Internet is as well informed as presidents and city councilors, and has a stake in the issues and a motive to have things turn out a certain way.

It would be — and has been — enough for seekers of the highest office in the free world to promise a tax cut here, an education reform there, to vow that there will be enough gasoline at reasonable prices, and that the terrorists will not strike the homeland again. Which is fine as far as it goes. But America, the nation that led the world in thinking big and will do so again someday, deserves better.

In almost every election there is the option of selecting a caretaker; sometimes only caretakers are on the ballot. In 2008, America and the world were offered something bigger: a candidate with an expansive mind for whom strengthening every fiber of American muscle is but a prerequisite for the larger task at hand, which is to guide Americans in reinventing their country as a fundamentally better place for its own citizens and the billions of people with whom they share the planet. A tall order, but deteriorating conditions demanded it. America has been increasingly defined at home by a cabal of highly placed, misguided ideologues and abroad by manufacturers of hatred for America. "When I am president," Obama has said, "we will author our own story." He believes himself ready to lead the U.S. into a second American Century. "My attitude is that you don't want to just be president," Obama says. "You want to change the country. You want to be a great president."

Not long after Bill Clinton secured his party's presidential nomination at the conclusion of the primaries season in the late spring of 1992, his advisers were alarmed to discover from polling data that the vast majority of Americans knew almost nothing about the Arkansas governor. Who was he? What did he stand for? How would he change America?

Sixteen years later, Barack Obama clinched his party's presidential nomination in June 2008 only to discover that he, too, was a virtual unknown to most Americans. Who was he exactly, other than a man whose confidence when speaking reminded some of John F. Kennedy and others of Ronald Reagan? Where did he stand on stem cell research, illegal immigrants, and Roe v. Wade? What would he do about soaring prices at the gas pump and America's energy security? How would he protect the country from future terrorist attacks? What is his plan for dealing with the Iraqi quagmire? Would he help the estimated million Americans facing foreclosure keep their homes? And was he a covert Muslim, as rumors on the Internet and assertions at the coffee shop and farm-supplies depot would have it?

The professional political consultants who dominate campaigns in the major leagues — everything from gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races up — would have recommended a nationwide TV marketing campaign to blanket the country with slick advertisements about their candidate's recent descent from heaven to make the country's woes disappear. For good measure there would be attack ads — relatively gentle ones from the candidate's campaign and less gentle broadsides from shady third parties — to tear down the candidate's opponent.

What Barack Obama, forty-seven, decided to do instead was to go back to where he started. Except rather than talking to fellow Democrats in their living rooms, town halls, and church basements, Obama would traverse every part of the nation and introduce himself and his wife, Michelle — and if it wasn't past their bedtime, his children, Malia, ten, and Sasha, seven — to Republicans, independents, Democrats who'd voted for someone else in the primaries, and the vast majority of Americans who hadn't yet tuned into the presidential contest. The emphasis this time would be on town squares, shopping centers, factory gates, and school auditoriums, rather than the spectacular Obama rallies of the primary season — including one in Portland, Oregon, that drew a record 74,000 people to see the first viable African-American candidate for president of the United States. The Pacific Northwest city held the attendance record briefly: in July more than 200,000 U.S. flag-waving Germans turned out for an Obama speech in Berlin, one of many European capitals where public appearances by George W. Bush drew only protestors.

Obama would tell his story: the Harvard-trained civil-rights lawyer and community organizer, who opposed the Iraq war as an Illinois state senator and passed hundreds of laws in Springfield, Illinois, and the U.S. Senate to help veterans, farmers, undernourished kids, teachers in failing schools, seniors with eroding benefits, single moms (as his own mother had been), and other folks who were getting a raw deal.

And he would tell his version of the American story. It's a story about a resourceful people who have been a little short on hope these past few years and need to be reminded of how their past triumphs proved they have it in them to build an even more prosperous, caring, and globally respected nation than their predecessors had so remarkably forged. And if the planets lined up for this improbable candidate, who spoke by turns of individual responsibility and collective compassion, America would never be the same again.

It would reclaim its once unquestioned leadership in diplomacy, through which it had reshaped the post-1945 world and won the Cold War; in entrepreneurship, which made Coca-Cola, Whirlpool, and Microsoft household names from Budapest to São Paulo; and in humanitarianism, with initiatives such as the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps, by which America earned its reputation as the most benevolent empire in history.

Having lived abroad in the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, majored in international relations at Columbia University, and traveled extensively in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, Obama grasps that America's power remains an awesome thing, frightening to many of the world's six billion inhabitants but not if used intelligently. During one of his official foreign trips to the Middle East as a U.S. senator, Obama looked up at a passing U.S. helicopter and wondered, as those around him did, if it was going to drop food or fire rockets. What, Obama wondered, if the sound of approaching U.S. aircraft always meant relief from suffering? If the usually well-meaning foreign-policy establishment in Washington, where Obama was a relatively recent arrival, could suspend its hesitancy about limited possibilities and imagine "the world as it should be, not as it is" how much greater would be the scope for American culture to take hold in friendly and hostile regions alike, and for the U.S., in turn, to absorb the best practices of others? (The Dutch prowess, of necessity, for engineering the world's best levees, for instance.)

Those who called Obama unrealistic, a dreamer, had a valid concern. Many of his boldest ideas had not been tried. And it had been a long time since big ideas were in fashion. Too many people had forgotten how successful Franklin Roosevelt had been in tapping into the American core value of intolerance for complacency, famously conveyed in an FDR campaign speech in 1932: "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

America's political leadership has been trapped in "the world as it is" for so long that it has lost touch with what the American people are capable of individually and as a nation. The Revolutionary War, the Emancipation Proclamation, women's suffrage, the eradication of fascism in Europe and the Pacific, and even the triumphs of the Apollo missions are such faded memories that they might as well have been someone else's story. "At every turn in our history," Obama said, referring to the introduction in the 1930s of Social Security, denounced by critics at the time as communistic, "there's been somebody who said we can't.... I'm here to tell you, yes we can." Obama was impatient, he said, with the "can't-do, won't-do, won't-even-try" mentality in Washington that kills so many promising ideas.

Enough Americans were hungry for a new vision of America that on its strength alone Obama built the biggest grassroots political movement in U.S. history in 2007–08, with 1.5 million volunteers knocking on doors in every state and U.S. territory, asking Americans if they were satisfied with a lethargy that, in Obama's words, has "caused our politics to become small and timid, calculating and cautious." Record numbers of young voters, dismissed as chronically alienated, plus African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, women, seniors, and veterans registered to vote in the Democratic primaries, some for the first time, some for the first time in decades.

His campaign, Obama so often said, was not about him. "I'm just a blank slate that people project their ideas on," he has said. The Obama insurgency that toppled Hillary Clinton, the prohibitive favorite to capture the Democratic nomination as recently as Obama's startling upset victory January 3, 2008, in the lead-off contest in Iowa, "is about you," Obama told shivering crowds unable to find a seat in packed auditoriums to whom he came outdoors to speak.

But what does that mean? And don't all politicians say that? The answer was in an earlier Iowa speech, the previous December, in which Obama bemoaned the squandered opportunity of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, when every American and hundreds of millions of people around the world waited for the call to serve, to defeat terrorism at its roots, to sacrifice on the home front to pay for the military mission, and to send Americans into the world to understand the hostile forces at work. "We were ready to answer a new call for our country," Obama said. "But the call never came. Instead, we were asked to go shopping, and to prove our patriotism by supporting a war in Iraq that should never have been authorized, and never been waged." And to accept tax cuts for the first time in wartime, a windfall for the country's wealthiest income earners who neither needed nor asked for it. The tax cuts helped transform the unprecedented federal surpluses of the late 1990s into record triple-digit deficits in the Bush years, resulting in a doubling of the national debt, to more than one trillion dollars, and the emergence of the Peoples' Republic of China, holders of about one trillion, two hundred billion dollars of that debt, into America's largest creditor.

The Obama campaign was not about him because the real goal was to unleash the American spirit of hard work and ingenuity onto noble causes. "I have no doubt that in the face of impossible odds people who love their country can change it," Obama said. "Americans have shown they want to step up. I see it everywhere I go: the brave young men and women who have signed up to defend our country; the volunteers fighting poverty in rural America and to rebuild New Orleans; students getting their colleges to divest to stop the genocide in Darfur; the thousands of young Americans who have flooded the applicant pool for Teach for America; retirees who are devoting their time to serve.

"I won't just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States," Obama said, before outlining a series of initiatives ranging from cleaning up inner-city neighborhoods to volunteering at VA hospitals and nursing homes to offering four thousand dollars a year in federal college tuition in exchange for one hundred hours of service — or two hours a week — in expanded AmeriCorps and Youth Corps programs to lead seniors in therapeutic dance routines or help troubled youth with their homework. "This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency."

As much as editors at national media organizations might attach great importance to the Republican and Democratic primaries and caucuses that take place in the first few months of each fourth year, these are family affairs whose drama is of little or no interest to everyday Americans: Great Plains ranchers coping with skyrocketing feed costs amid a global food crisis; working-class families struggling with the loss of jobs with decent pay and benefits while food-price inflation is at a seventeen-year high; hundreds of thousands of Americans who've lost their homes in the collapse of the "housing bubble" and homeowners everywhere who've suffered an estimated eight-trillion-dollar plunge in the value of their properties; the melee of injured and chronically sick people waiting for relief in the local hospital's emergency room, many of whom are among the forty-seven million uninsured Americans for whom the ER is the only source of medical care; the grieving families and friends of the more than four thousand Americans who have perished in Iraq and Afghanistan, while relatives of the about 150,000 armed-services personnel still in Iraq worry about the coping skills of young men and women — trained professionals though they might be — who are on their third, fourth, or fifth rotation; and everyday citizens who have come to realize that their local Iraq-depleted National Guard unit cannot be relied upon as before to help put out fires, build levees against floods, and pull drowning children from the river.

Recalling his time in the 1980s as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama once remarked that one of the virtues of that profession is that "politicians have a map of the country, but an organizer knows what's actually happening in the streets" — at the beauty salon, the savings and loan, the recreation center, the church and bingo halls, the shopping malls, the school board, the farm-equipment dealer, the used-car lots. Obama is still young enough to know what he doesn't know and that some of what he does know is wrong. The necessary corrective to that is to talk with fellow citizens who are experts on grain prices and rates of violent crime; to sit at the back of a classroom and watch how students and teachers relate to each other; to hear citizens' arguments pro and con for the municipal application to build a new Wal-Mart; and to catch the all-important hospital triage nurse on his or her break and ask about the types of injuries and ailments that are showing up in the ER. Is drug overdose subsiding? What about complications from youth obesity? Any fewer cases of angina and stroke since the new storefront preventive-medicine clinic opened a year ago?


Excerpted from An American Story by David Olive. Copyright © 2008 David Olive. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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