More than any other presidential candidate, Barack Obama owes his success to sheer rhetorical power. Obama’s dazzling keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention made the then–Illinois state senator an instant presidential prospect. His breakthrough speech at Iowa’s Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in November 2007 led to his caucus win earlier this month. Even conservatives dig his shtick: Republican media operative Mark McKinnon praised him as a “walking, talking hope machine.”
Here in Massachusetts, though, Obama’s oratory can also trigger déjà vu. His compelling message sounds a lot like the one that Deval Patrick — who’s known Obama for years, and who, like Obama, is a client of Democratic media consultant David Axelrod — used during his successful 2006 gubernatorial campaign. (Axelrod also worked for Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards in 2004, the same year he helped Obama win election to the US Senate.) As David Kravitz, an editor of the liberal blog Blue Mass. Group, wrote after Iowa: “[T]here was always lots of similarity, but it’s getting really dramatic.”
This Patrick-Obama parallelism hasn’t gone unnoticed in the press. In April 2007, after a New York Times Magazine profile of Axelrod mentioned it in passing, the Boston Globe examined it in greater depth two weeks later. And this past weekend — after the Globe noted the two politicians’ fondness for the phrase “Yes we can!” in a story on Patrick’s decision to stump for Obama in South Carolina — the Associated Press ran a bigger piece on the subject.
Overall, though, these stories have had an exculpatory gist. While the articles note that Patrick and Obama share broad themes — hope, change, a faith in the power of words and the political grassroots — they seem willing to attribute this commonality to shared life experiences (both are African-Americans who rose from humble circumstances to attend Harvard Law School) and shared political instincts and beliefs. As Axelrod told the AP: “It’s not surprising that there would be a commonality of themes. They’ve been friends for so long. They talk a lot. . . . I’m sure they learned from each other.”
Two of a kind
But did they overdo it? Remember: this is a presidential election in which authenticity (or the perception of authenticity) is playing a major role. Hillary Clinton’s emotional moment pushed her to victory in New Hampshire, for example, while Mitt Romney's Manchurian Candidate persona is crippling his campaign.
To date, this dynamic has helped Obama. As Huffington Post blogger Steve Rosenbaum wrote this past year: “Simply put — Obama’s words feel like his own. Both convincing and colloquial. . . . His delivery is authentic.”
Of course, no politician creates his or her message out of whole cloth. But the parallels between Patrick and Obama’s messages are so close that they could end up limiting Obama’s ability to play the authenticity card. Consider the following:
Both men depict themselves as change agents confronting stale establishments.
• Patrick, speaking to National Public Radio (NPR) in December 2005: “The state is slipping behind, and I’m persuaded that the same old thing from the same insiders is not going to help.”
• Obama in a January 9 speech in Jersey City: “[D]o you want the same old folks out there doing the same old things? We need someone new.”
Both say they’re leading movements — and minimize the hubris of this claim by crediting their supporters.
• Patrick in his November 7, 2006, victory speech: “You are the ones who transformed this from a political campaign to a movement for change, and I am honored and awed by what you have done.”
• Obama speaking with reporters after his victory in the Iowa caucuses: “I think [Iowa voters] sparked a potential movement for change in the country that will be inspiring for a lot of people.”
Both practice an existential brand of politics.
• Patrick in an October 2006 speech on Boston Common, where he hammered Republican candidate Kerry Healey for a controversial ad linking Patrick to a convicted rapist: “Hers is a politics of fear. Ours is a politics of hope.”
• Obama in April 2007, responding to Republican Rudy Giuliani’s suggestion that America will suffer another big terrorist attack if a Democrat wins in 2008: “Rudy Giuliani today has taken the politics of fear to a new low, and I believe Americans are ready to reject those kind of politics.”
Both leaven their optimistic tone by emphasizing the need for hard work.
• Patrick in a 2006 TV spot: “[M]y grandmother had a saying, ‘Hope for the best and work for it.’ That fundamentally is what I’m asking you to do now.”
• Obama in his official campaign kickoff speech in February 2007: “[I]t won’t be easy . . . Let us begin this hard work together. Let us transform this nation.”