Obama the orator

The finest moments of Obama’s presidency were oratorical. When he delivered a stunning eulogy for Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney in Charleston and sang Amazing Grace. When his eyes filled with tears as he responded to the shootings at Sandy Hook. When, last night, he delivered his farewell address and signed off with “Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can.”

Oratory is an endangered art in the modern era. The great speakers of the 20th century are a long distant memory. Most of today’s politicians speak with all the passion and enthusiasm of schoolchildren reluctantly reading in class. So the fact we’ve had a rhetorician to match the best of the last century as US president for the last 8 years has been a glorious surprise.

I remarked to a friend on the night of Obama’s inauguration in 2009 that the mere fact of his election would be enough to put him among the all-time great presidents. I hadn’t counted on his delivery. Like Lincoln or JFK, Obama understood the importance of his words, and delivered them with passion, humour and — yes — grace. These superb powers of communication have seen him dominate through that oft-used phrase ‘soft power’. And it is this, more than anything, that will ultimately secure his legacy.

His successor, Donald Trump, is not a man who understands the position of president to be a cultural one. He sees it more as that of an economic sergeant-major, yelling madly at the troops until they march in time. He’s an abysmal public speaker, one who thinks ‘very nice’ is an adequate expression of admiration, whose rhetoric is more ‘you’d better’ than ‘yes we can’.

So let’s savour these last few days of a president who truly understands the art of public speaking. It could be a long time before we hear his like again.