President Obama went out on a rhetorical limb last month when introducing the American Jobs Act, ordering Congress to “Pass this bill,” an uncharacteristically forceful command he repeated 17 times in its introduction and countless times more as he campaigned around the country for its passage. Last week, he doubled down in the wake of the Senate’s predictable rejection of the bill, declaring that he “will not take no for an answer.” Some pundits have suggested that he never expected it to pass in full, but intended all along to force Republicans to consider its components piecemeal in a series of damning votes. But after studying the President for several years, I see both remarks as consistent with a pattern of an irrational faith in the power of language — both words in general and his words in particular — that dates back to his early childhood and has had a profound impact on the formation of his personality and his presidency.
(PHOTOS: Obama’s Nation of Hope)
Granted, Obama has good reason to believe that his words can carry an almost magical power; after all, only a few minutes on stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention transformed him from a state politician and out-of-print author into a national political figure and star memoirist, launching his then-forgotten 1995 book Dreams from My Father towards multimillion-copy bestseller-dom. A close read of that memoir reveals Obama’s lifelong understanding that words can have a powerful effect beyond or distinct from their meaning. He describes himself as young child “swaddled” in stories about his absent father that assuaged the pain of growing up in a broken home and “placed [him] in the center of a vast and orderly universe,” a universe in which his father was elevated to almost heroic status. This elevation includes the often-repeated tale of his father using the power of logic and language to convince a fellow barfly to renounce his racism. Years later, of course, Obama learned that his father was no hero but an alcoholic, abusive failure with little resemblance to the portrait painted by his mother’s and grandparents’ stories, but his yearning for a father led him to become at one with his father in his imagination.
One of the most revealing scenes in the memoir depicts Obama’s debut as a public speaker at an anti-apartheid protest when he was a college student at Occidental College. His first taste of the power of public oratory coincided with the lesson that authority of the speaker didn’t depend on the meaning or accuracy of his words. In what Obama describes as “a bit of street theater,” his limited assignment was only to begin speaking before being dragged offstage by fellow protesters in paramilitary uniforms just moments into his remarks. Although he was essentially only playing the role of a prematurely silenced speaker, he saw an almost boundless personal potential for oratorical accomplishments, telling himself before taking the stage that “with the right words everything could change.”
With the right words, Obama aroused the passions of an electorate that sent him to the White House — and now views him with disappointment over the hollowness of his rhetoric and the apparent ease with which he is able to accept a disconnect between word and meaning, promise and follow-through. “Pass this bill” probably felt like the right words as well, as did “I will not take no for an answer.” Both of these recent remarks suggest that Obama overestimates his authority and influence in the context in which they’re spoken: he doesn’t have the power to force Congress to pass any bill, or to change Congress’s answer. They sound like the words of a speaker who unconsciously believes that speaking them will make them true — and will then accept how short of the truth they ultimately fall, as if the saying of them were more important than their meaning. On some level Obama expects his words to have the magical power that they have on occasion actually had — and then seems far too willing to forget that they’re actually expected to live up to their meaning.