Four friends and I took the hour-long drive up to New Hampshire on November 4th. We canvassed for a day and woke up at 4am the morning after to arrive early to Concord – a city that would be considered fairly small in most contexts, but has seen about as much political might roll through as the UN these past few months, due to its electoral influence. This time, President Obama himself took the stage.
The experience itself was a lot of fun, but something about the president’s rhetoric seemed different. Below is an excerpt from the speech:
You know, the folks at the very top of this country, they don’t need a champion in Washington. They’ll always have a seat at the table. They’ll always have access and influence. That’s the way things work. We understand that. The people who really need a champion are the Americans whose letters I read late at night after I come up from the Oval Office, the men and women that I meet on the campaign trail.
The laid-off paper mill worker who’s retraining at the age of 55 for a new career in a new industry — she needs a champion. The restaurant owner who’s got great food, but needs a loan to expand and the bank has turned him down — he needs a champion.
The cooks and the waiters and the cleaning staff working overtime at a Vegas hotel, trying to save enough to buy a first home or send their kid to college — they need a champion. (Applause.) The autoworker who got laid off, thought the plant was going to close and then got called back, and now is filled with pride and dignity, building a great car — he needs a champion.
That teacher in an overcrowded classroom with outdated textbooks, digging into her own pocket to buy school supplies, and not always getting the support that she needs, but knowing every day she might reach that one child and make all the difference in that child’s life — she needs a champion.
All those kids in inner cities and small farm towns, in the valleys of Ohio, the rolling Virginia hills, the streets of Concord — kids dreaming of becoming scientists or doctors or engineers or entrepreneurs or buisnesspeople or teachers or diplomats or even a President — they need a champion in Washington.
They don’t have lobbyists. The future never has as many lobbyists as the vested interests in the status quo. But it’s the dreams of those children that will be our saving grace.
This is different from 2008, in one way more than others. In 2008, we were going to change the country. We were the change we wanted to see in the world, and we comprised were the engine of progress that America needed. The president still uses that rhetoric in his campaign today – in fact, in Concord he let slip that he was merely a “prop” for his energetic 25-year-old campaign workers, and in turn was merely a representation of the energy of voters, “we” – but the excerpt quoted above portrays a much different view of the presidency. President Obama was casting himself as a “champion”; a protector of the vulnerable and crusader for the weak.
Douglas Brinkley characterized Obama as a “Progressive Firewall” and the “Curator-in-Chief of the New Deal,” in a recent Rolling Stone interview. This implied acquiescence to the Past seems, at the very least, off-message with Obama’s 2012 campaign (and at the most, a misguided characterization of his administration thus far). It’s more clear that the President’s speech implied a movement from “we” to “he,” that seems fitting after four years in office. The president, or so he projected, has finally mastered the learning curve of the Oval Office and is ready to wield his power as chief advocate, rather than chief representative, of the middle class.This shift in attitude lends itself to a new view of President Obama, one much closer to the Noblesse Oblige Democrats represented in the Kennedy or Roosevelt clans – groups already successful in society that pursued politics as a duty to those less fortunate, as opposed to elected officials who rose from within the ranks of the “everyman,” such as Truman or Carter.
At the start of his campaign, Barack Obama’s youth and life experiences placed him squarely between identifying as one of his young, headstrong supporters and identifying as their leader. Four years of the Oval Office seem to have cleared up any misconception: the president is the voice for a movement, not just the voice of a movement.
Maybe I’m reading too much into a few lines in his speech. Maybe it’s been too long since I’ve attended a political event, and I’ve forgotten that the excitement of a moment can hyper-sensitize anyone to the subtleties of rhetoric. But I know what made this speech stick out, at least for me: The president mentioned “the cooks, and the wait staff, and the cleaning staff working overtime in some Vegas hotel trying save enough to buy a first home or send their kids to college.”
That’s exactly who Robert Kennedy fought for. It’s who he died fighting for, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. There ought always to be an empty seat in the White House for the spirit of Robert Kennedy. Maybe the president has filled it.
Photo Credit: answers.com