America will miss Obama, among the greatest orators of our time, KU professor says


Party affiliation and policies aside, Barack Obama in eight years shared with Americans an “undeniable gift,” not likely to be seen again at the presidential level for decades to come, says a University of Kansas communications professor.

Robert Rowland teaches rhetoric and argumentation at KU in Lawrence. And as Obama prepares to leave office, Rowland has compiled what he considers some of the president’s best oratorical moments from speeches delivered since his 2004 speech during the Democratic National Convention.

“President Obama has a gift of eloquent speaking. Martin Luther King, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and Ronald Reagan had that gift,” said Rowland, who has been studying Obama speeches since before he was elected president.

“I have read hundreds of his speeches,” Rowland said.

“People with Obama’s gift come along once in a generation in our history,” Rowland said. “Obama is in a tradition of American presidents who said eloquent things about policy and what it means to be an American, about the balance between individual liberty and that of an entire community.”

Obama speeches, Rowland said, resonated in a way that “cannot be done in the age of Twitter.”

Consider, he said, Obama singing “Amazing Grace” during a speech after the mass shooting deaths of nine black church members in South Carolina.

In addition, Rowland called Obama’s 2004 speech delivered during the Democratic National Convention to be “the most important speech he ever gave.”

That was the one where he said “there are no red states or blue states, but that we are the United States of America,” Rowland said. “It’s part of the core message he maintained throughout his presidency: That we are different on the surface, but fundamentally we are more alike.”

Rowland predicts that Obama’s farewell speech Tuesday night, to be delivered in Chicago, will be “vintage Obama,” and he says America will miss, if nothing else, Obama’s knack for delivering an affecting speech. And when all is said, “when the partisanship of the moment dissipates, people will remember the eloquence.”

Here is Rowland’s list of some of Obama’s best speeches and the most memorable quotes from them:

▪ New Hampshire primary speech, Jan. 8, 2008

“This is where he says ‘in the unlikely story of America, there has never been anything false about hope,’ and he uses the refrain ‘yes, we can.’ 

▪ Tucson, Ariz., in the aftermath of a mass shooting whose victims included U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, Jan. 12, 2011

▪ First inauguration, Jan. 20, 2009

“He talks about ‘the winter of our sorrow.’ It’s somber. The tone of it was criticized at the time. It’s not inspiring like ‘Yes, we can,’ ” Rowland said.

▪ Acceptance speech, Democratic National Convention, Aug. 28, 2008

“It’s the story of America gradually becoming more welcoming and inclusive,” Rowland said. “He talks about the evolution of the American dream. He talks about a young preacher from Georgia, and you realize it’s Martin Luther King Jr. He samples his greatest hits all the time, like Reagan’s ‘City on a hill’ and ‘Rendezvous with destiny.’ 

▪ “A More Perfect Union” speech, March 18, 2008

“This is also called his ‘Race Speech,’ and it was delivered after the controversy over remarks made by his minister, Jeremiah Wright,” Rowland said.

▪ Edmund Pettus Bridge/Selma, Ala., civil rights march anniversary speech, March 7, 2015

“He spoke along with the civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis … of progress that had been made in moving the nation closer to the more perfect union, but also of the need for more progress,” Rowland said.

▪ Newtown, Mass., mass school shooting anniversary speech, Jan. 5, 2016

“This was where he broke down in tears and said, ‘Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,’” Rowland said.

▪ Charleston, S.C., mass shooting eulogy, June 26, 2015

“This was where Obama sang ‘Amazing Grace’ to highlight his theme of grace in the aftermath of a shooting spree inside a black church by a white supremacist who killed nine people,” Rowland said.

▪ Second inaugural address, Jan. 20, 2013

“He talks about the trail from Seneca Falls, where the women’s rights movement was born in 1848, to Selma to Stonewall,” Rowland said. “Lincoln’s is the only other second inaugural address that was better than the first.”

▪ Remarks on health care to joint session of Congress, Sept. 9, 2009

“This is a policy-oriented speech where he reads a letter from Sen. Edward Kennedy that Kennedy wrote before he died, saying that ensuring health care for people is about the quality of our character as Americans,” Rowland said.

▪ Economic policy speech, Osawatomie, Kan., Dec. 6, 2011

Finally, Rowland said, a speech Obama delivered in Kansas was among his best; it was delivered during the runup to the 2012 election. “In 2008 he was transformative,” Rowland said. “It was the speech in which he says, ‘Everybody needs a fair shot, and everybody needs to pay their fair share.’ 

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc