Every once in a while, as I do this job, I run across a speech I simply like. President Obama's address to the Parliament in London yesterday is one of those efforts. I doubt I'll ever write an academic essay about it nor do I think it tells us something new about public address. But it's a good speech, an appealing one. For someone teaching US foreign policy rhetoric, there might be a nice little unit on the "special relationship" between Great Britain and the United States, using Winston Churchill's December 1941address to a joint session of Congress and Obama's speecch.
Why do I like it? For one thing, it's funny. The jokes actually work, which is rare for a political speech. For instance, Obama said, "I am told that the last three speakers here have been the Pope, Her Majesty the Queen, and Nelson Mandela--which is either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke." For another, Obama again nicely structures the address--past successes lead to future challenges solved by timeless values. And, of course, the president nicely weaves together English and American allusions, performing our special relationship even as he asserts it.
But what may be politically interesting about this speech is the way in which President Obama is slowly but surely developing a full-throated narrative defense of the liberal tradition. In both his recent budget speech and in this one, he begins with consensual values, "Adam Smith's central insight remains true today. There is no greater generator of wealth and innovation than a system of free enterprise that unleashes the potential of individual men and women." Stretching that insight across time and space, he argues that it has worked throughout the past two centuries and across the globe.
But it works best when we include all people, when we invest in education, when we guard against market failures, when we work together for a paceful world, and when we uphold human rights. I've expressed gthese claims much less naturally than he does; the narrative flow he creates encompasses these concerns very well. They flow naturally from the consensus he's identified.
Equally important, there's always a cutting edge. For instance, the president is determined to include all peoples in his vision. So, he credits the traditional heroes of the Anglo-American narrative in the speech, but at the beginning, he features--strongly--somewhat different founders than is the norm: "For both of our nations, living up to the ideals enshrined in these founding documents has sometimes been difficult, has always been a work in progress. The path has never been perfect. But through the struggles of slaves and immigrants, women and ethnic minorities, former colonies and persecuted religions, we have learned better than most that the longing for freedom and human dignity is not English or American or Western--it is universal and it beats in every heart."
To put this metaphorically, these are Reagan's words and King's music, melded to make something new and interesting. He extolls liberal values, but argues those traditionally on the outside have done the most to make those ideals real in the history of the two nations.
Similarly, at the end of the address, he acknowledges that "our diversity can lead to tension." There've been hard debates about immigration and assimilation, but "we fundamentally recognize that our patchwork heritage is an enormous strength--that in a world which will only grow smaller and more interconnected, the example of our two nations says it possible for people to be united in their ideals, instead of divided by their differences; that it's possible for hearts to change and old hatreds to pass; that it's possible for the sons and daughters of former colonies to sit here as members of this great Parliament, and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army to stand before you as President of the United States."
Very nice--he establishes diversity as the fundamental strength of both nations, represented in our narrative history--the earlier quotation--and in our present circumstance--the later quotation. That diversity is both practical--a strength as the world becomes more interconnected (imitating US/UK)--and ideal--hearts heal and hatreds pass. All of that, then, is represented by the histories of these two nations and embodied in the person of the President--much as the special relationship was embodied in the person of Churchill (American mother, English father) as he explicitly noted in his 1941 speech before Congress. The very strategy used enacts the special relationship while also rooting that relationship in liberal values.
This is a good speech. It also shows that the president is nicely warming up for the coming election.