The Secret to Obama's Messaging Success
The former President has offered Democrats a blueprint for powerful, persuasive messaging
The closing weeks of the Midterm campaign have felt dreary at times. Exciting, qualified candidates are clinging to narrow leads against the worst characters in the MAGAverse as the political bottom threatens to fall out. Inspiration and excitement are in short supply.
Enter Barack Obama.
This past weekend, the former President hit the trail and blew everyone’s proverbial socks off with a combination of hope, inspiration, humor, and brutally effective political attacks delivered with a winning smile. The clips of Obama’s rally went immediately viral. A slew of adulatory press coverage quickly followed. Representative Ro Khanna put it best in an interview with the New York Times:
‘If he were running in every state, we’d win every Senate race, but he’s a once-of-a-generation talent,” said Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, adding that watching the former president’s remarks should be required “homework” for the party.
As a former Obama staffer who still gets irrationally annoyed at the slightest criticism of my former boss, I have very much enjoyed this focus on 44’s immense political skills. Even those against Obama’s policies or politics cannot argue with his communications chops. He is clearly one of the best orators in American political history. I mean — he went from State Senator to the White House in four years in large part because of a singular speech that captured the nation’s attention. Obama has a powerful stage presence, a persuasive speaking style, and a gift for comedic timing. It’s easy to watch these clips and simply be in awe of his preternatural talent:
For other Democrats, “be more like Obama” is unhelpful advice. The political equivalent of “Be Like Mike.” This advice misses the point. It’s worthwhile to separate the orator from the oratory. There are lessons to learn from Obama’s speechmaking success. Compelling political communications is equal parts message and messenger. From the perspective of someone who spent more than a decade watching Obama communicate up close, I would like to share some lessons that Democrats up and down the ballot can replicate next week and into the future.
1. Speak Like A Human
Barack Obama is a policy wonk, Nobel Prize winner, award-winning author, student of history, and constitutional scholar. There are few rooms he has entered where he did not immediately become the smartest person in that room. As he readily admits, he has a fondness for details and a penchant for being professorial. The defining characteristic of his speechmaking is simple. He talks like a human trying to communicate with other humans. It sounds easy, but few politicians in either party do it. Too many use political jargon, rely on cheesy lines written by mediocre speechwriters, and do poor impressions of past presidents, real (JFK) and fictional (Bartlett).
For example, watch Obama lay out the consequences of electing a historic dunderhead like Herschel Walker in the simplest, clearest, most devastating way:
People hate politicians. Talking like one is a surefire way to lose support. This isn’t an argument for oversimplification or avoiding nuance. You have to talk like a human, but you shouldn’t talk down to your people. Treat the voters with respect by making a sophisticated argument. Just do it conversationally.
2. Humor Works
Barack Obama is good at telling jokes. In fact, he likes telling jokes so much that he actually enjoyed attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — an event that required him to spend a Saturday night mixing and mingling with reporters and taking selfies with their celebrity crushes. On paper, that dinner would be slightly less preferable to a root canal without anesthesia. But comedy isn’t just a pastime; it’s a political weapon for the former President.