Master orator Obama talks the talk

Last updated 05:00 12/11/2012
US President Barack Obama
RE-ELECTED: US President Barack Obama

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President Obama’s acceptance speech shows that people are still prepared to invest in hope so long as the person delivering that message has the rhetoric and force of personality to sell it.

It’s hard to overstate the euphoria that has swept the world in the wake of Obama’s victory speech. Certainly, this was in in league with the orations that propelled him to the Oval Office in the first place. He even harked back to his breakout 2004 Democratic convention speech yesterday when he asserted there was no “red states and blue states” – only the United States of America.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. America remains divided as ever. The cultural battles continue to be waged in the ballot box as the electoral map filled up yesterday with red and blue shapes confirming America’s divisions.

But, as they did in 2008, people have rallied again behind the message of unity, hope and change. They’ve renewed their faith in a man who’s promised “the best is yet to come”.

Make no mistake – Obama’s re-election defied all historical precedents. He won despite an economy that sucked away much of the nation's spirit. He won with the highest unemployment rate for any incumbent since the Great Depression. He won even though a huge majority of voters said they were not better off than they were four years ago — a huge test of survival for a president.

And don’t forget about the negativity of this campaign. There were 1 million advertisements run during the campaign - 40 per cent more than 2008. By May this year the adverts run by the candidates were already 70 per cent negative.

So has all this negativity and division just washed away? How does 20 minutes of talking overturn months of negativity and years of disappointment and disillusionment?

Undoubtedly, Obama’s next four years are going to be incredibly difficult. Probably more so than his first term. The approaching fiscal cliff, with its own frankenstorm of tax hikes and spending cuts, will be just the first of many battles he will have to wage. Americans are right to feel nervous about their jobs, their families and their houses.

But Obama has been able to get them to ignore the previous four years and get them excited about being on the journey to better times. It’s the kick the can down the road tactic straight from the PR playbook. But it’s not as easy as some might think.

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People can handle promises off a better day to come. They can handle the knocks and the setbacks. But they must be able to invest that hope in someone who has the force of personality and rhetoric to back it up. Obama of course has this in spades.

What we saw yesterday was a 20-minute master class in rhetoric. Soaring language that inspires and makes people feel part of something special is very helpful when you don’t want people to think about things like jobs or the mortgage. And you only have to see the crowds and read the newspaper headlines to see how effective Obama was at doing this.

Not everyone can do this of course. You couldn’t say imagine a Romney presidency getting away with this. Obama on the other hand has the essential leadership traits needed for people to believe in the journey. He’s passionate, articulate and compassionate. Add an incredibly strong back story about him being the living embodiment of the American dream - no matter how erroneous –and you have a powerful ability to influence people’s perception of you.

Those leadership qualities aren’t confined to the political spectrum either. The best CEO’s and executives can also motivate their staff through change or difficult times. They too can sell the journey off the back of the same leadership qualities and rhetoric that’s inspiring, inclusive and gives a sense of purpose.

But the success of this tactic hinges on it being believable. And that means the message has to come from the right person with the right mix of leadership qualities and presentation. You don’t see those kinds of personalities every day so when one does rear its head, you can only admire it.

When asked by CBS this year whether he had made mistakes in office, Obama admitted to one. It was, he said, the job of a president to “tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism”.

Even he has admitted his failure to selling the journey in his first four years. Yesterday he got this back on track. Problem is, four years on from now the journey will come to an end and people don’t like being on a journey if the destination isn’t that great.

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