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As President of the United States

Six winning words for Barack Obama

What happened in last night’s Democratic debate in Cleveland between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? Obama aced it with a brilliantly simple rhetorical trick. In the middle of the accusations and counter-accusations flying around about their healthcare plans, Obama suddenly went over Clinton’s head, appealing directly to the viewers:

The question is, are we going to make sure that it is affordable for everybody? And that’s my goal when I’m president of the United States.

After some more criticisms from Clinton, he managed to wrap up that whole thematic segment by saying:

And that’s what I intend to provide as president of the United States.

And then, once they got onto talking about NAFTA, he said:

And as president of the United States, I intend to make certain that every agreement that we sign has the labor standards, the environmental standards and the safety standards that are going to protect not just workers, but also consumers.

Bam-bam-bam. That’s three times Obama managed to position himself, unopposed, as the future “president of the United States”. It seems Clinton suddenly remembered that she ought to be doing it too, but it was too little, too late:

I’m confident that as president, when I say we will opt out unless we renegotiate, we will be able to renegotiate.

No, no, Hillary, you don’t stick an “as president” hurriedly into the middle of a sentence like an afterthought. But it seemed she had already been defeated, in a battle she didn’t even know she was fighting. Clinton seemed to believe she was there to discusss wonkish policy detail. Obama knew he was there to persuade viewers that he was a credible future leader. A simple way to do this is just to keep referring to yourself as someone who’s going to be the president. And Obama did this a lot more — by my count, 11 times to Clinton’s four.

Even better — what Clinton never did, but Obama did six times, was to add those magic words “of the United States”, or even “of the United States of America”. This is an extra stroke of genius: pure Pavlovian brain-candy. The words “United States” in themselves, after all, are reliably feelgood, invoking the sense of unity and national pride. If you can appropriate those feelings and have them associated with yourself simply by repeatedly referring to yourself “as President of the United States”, that future will come to seem more and more likely.

What’s as impressive is that Obama manages to position himself rhetorically as the inevitable winner while also appearing less egotistical and more inclusive through a simple choice of pronoun: we rather than I. Compare and contrast Clinton —

I would immediately have a trade timeout, and I would take that time to try to fix NAFTA… I have put forward a very specific plan about what I would do… I‘ve also said that I would begin to withdraw within 60 days based on a plan that I asked begun to be put together as soon as I became president…

— with Obama:

And if we do those things, then I believe that we can actually get Ohio back on the path of growth and jobs and prosperity… You know, it is absolutely critical that we change how business is done in Washington and we remind ourselves of what government is supposed to be about… we‘re going to have to mobilize and inspire the American people…

Of course, Obama also uses the pronoun “I”, but what’s noticeable is that he uses the inclusive “we” far more than Clinton does.

Does all this mean that Barack Obama, if he becomes president, will really be “a uniter, not a divider”, as someone else once promised? Stay tuned…

  1. 1  Aenea  February 28, 2008, 8:32 am 

    Obama really owned that debate. Clinton used the most blatant straw-man arguments a number of times, but Obama just shook his head or smiled, and then came back with a great response.
    He is a really good speaker. And he actually sounds honest too.

    I should probably stop gushing now.

  2. 2  WIIIAI  February 28, 2008, 9:41 am 


  3. 3  Kári Tulinius  February 28, 2008, 8:34 pm 

    Everybody uses the “as president” formulation. Check out the transcript of the June 6th debate between the Democratic contenders. Edwards used it, so did Kucinich, Biden, Richardson and even Gravel. Dodd even used it to refer to all of them: “Well, listen, first of all, as president, we ought to be discouraging that behavior, because it is a problem.” Notably absent from that list are Clinton and Obama.

  4. 4  Kári Tulinius  February 28, 2008, 8:56 pm 

    Here’s something of interest, Michael Beirut on the branding of Obama, especially focusing on his choice of font.

  5. 5  Lloyd Mintern  February 28, 2008, 11:52 pm 

    Another highlight of that debate, in terms of language, was the skirmish over “denounce” and “reject.” Obama handled that so well, he made Hilary look like she had no point at all; like it really was semantics. Saying he conceded the point and would both denounce and reject if she wanted, her point was ducked. Of course her attempted distinction itself was unfairly combative, because it was not a really comparable situation that she was in. Hilary seems outclassed in this duel, and like she can only get more shrill.

  6. 6  Jeff Hussein Strabone  February 29, 2008, 9:00 am 

    My favorite Obamaism is, ‘I take Senator McCain/Clinton at his/her word.’ This happened twice this week. A Clinton staffer sent the instantly famous Kenyan headgear photo to a rightwing sludge site, she denied knowing about it, and he nobly said, I take her at her word. A radio hooligan preceded McCain onstage at a rally and talked all kinds of trash about Obama, McCain denied knowing the man or his intended words, and Obama nobly said, I take him at his word. It makes Obama look like a giant of decency and his opponents like petty, inept fools.

  7. 7  Walter Dufresne  February 29, 2008, 10:58 pm 

    Barack Obama’s lower voice and rolling cadences sound so much more attractive, so much more like Bill Clinton, than Hillary Clinton’s higher, sharper voice. It’s a terrible formal handicap she labors under, considering that the voters will mostly know them through the medium of television.

  8. 8  Steven  March 3, 2008, 2:00 pm 


    Everybody uses the “as president” formulation.

    Sure, but I didn’t say no one else did it; I said Obama did it a lot more than Clinton did in this debate, and in particular he hammered the long formulation “…of the United States”, which Clinton didn’t use at all. It’s even more interesting that Obama didn’t use it in the previous debate to which you link: I would guess that indicates someone on his team noticed, and drilled this tactic into him.

    Jeff Hussein: nice point. “I take him at his word” is brilliant, both implying that Obama ought to be taken at his word and (maybe?) that the other person is in fact lying.

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