President Obama makes a rare speech

President Obama makes a rare speech


I have been in the US now for a little more than a week, and I have followed a few interesting news stories here. In particular, one item that caught my interest was a somewhat atypical speech by Barack Obama. 

After a controversial legal decision where a Florida jury acquitted a Hispanic man in the shooting death of a teen during a “neighborhood watch”, Obama decided to make extensive comments on the case. The teenager, a hooded 17-year-old African-American, was shot and killed in Florida last year during a “neighborhood watch”. The case stimulated considerable interest and sparked debate over the state of race relations, and “profiling”, in America.

Why was the president’s speech so atypical? In this regard, several aspects of the president’s words were noteworthy. These days, it is easy to be cynical about elected officials and their public speaking. The world of politics seems every day more dominated by communication that is conceived and written not by the politicians themselves but by handlers and advisors. Orators read their pre-scripted texts from tele-prompters, with little space for personal reflection or speaking from the heart. This speech was different because:

It was impromptu and unrehearsed: The president came unexpectedly to the White House press room and spoke without any notes and without the aid of his omnipresent tele-prompter. His remarks sounded surprisingly, and refreshingly, off-the-cuff.

It was profoundly personal: He spoke in quite emotional terms about his own experience of being black in America, beginning by stating, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” 

It was the product of a long reflection on his life experience. This was a US president speaking “in the moment”, but his deeper message came from his lifelong thought process. As White House spokesman Jay Carney describes, “He knows what he thinks, and he knows what he feels, and he has not just in the past week, but for a good portion of his life, given a lot of thought to these issues.”

It was inclusive, putting the incident in a context that caused people to reflect. Mr. Obama didn’t critique the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman who faced various charges related to the killing. Instead, he used it as an opening to explain the lens through which black Americans may see the case. “There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars,” Mr. Obama said. “That happens to me—at least before I was a senator.”

The speech drew a lot of attention, and it was widely commented in the nationwide press. Why? To me, the news agencies and the public were so interested because here was a rare moment of authenticity in a world of bland and superficial public statements. For once, it felt like an authentic story, a leader speaking from the heart on matters of true importance to him. 

It is sad that such discourse seems to be so rare among our public officials today. (View the speech here )


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