If someone was to ask me who I think was the greatest public speaker in our time, I would respond without hesitation, Barack Obama.
This morning I listened to the speech he gave this week in Richmond, Virginia on behalf of democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is running for governor again this fall (don’t ask me why this Virginia election can’t wait for 2022).
I was amazed again at the ease with which Obama moves through his ideas, giving no sign that he is following a teleprompter or script of any kind. He pauses at moments to gather his thoughts, or to emphasize something he has said, but everything he says and does is part of his message, which, these days, is usually his confrontation with what he calls the ‘culture of meanness’. He says this is out there and growing not just in the USA, but in the world as a whole.
He said this is a return to tribalism. I couldn’t help remembering that that’s what Hitler and the Nazis were – tribalism come back. It’s worth remembering that the Nazis were only stopped in the greatest crucible of battle in history, the one fought in Russia, and that in its early stages the USA made a significant contribution to the weapons and other supplies of the Russian forces. Yet the Germans came close to winning the battle of Stalingrad, which would have given them control of the vast Russian oil fields. With adequate fuel supplies, which they never had, they might have been unbeatable.
Just think that this great conflict, World War II, which almost defines what the twentieth century was all about, was fought primarily because of population pressures when the world population was only 2 billion people. Now we are closing in on 8 billion (7,901,993,000 approx this morning according to the World Population Clock) .
America has been a leader for a better world now for a century, and Obama is part of that, but there are people in America and everywhere else who don’t care about the world at all.
Oh, how I, and many others, wished last year that it was Obama running for president against Donald Trump, or that it could be him in 2024. That doesn’t mean that Joe Biden isn’t a good president. I’m impressed with his thoughtful and effective handling of the current chaos in American politics. The attacks from the current Republican tribe brought out the combativeness of Obama in a way that didn’t always help.
Biden suffered from stuttering as a boy, and learned to cope with it. If you watch him speaking, you can see that it’s still there, confining him to a lower-key approach. I think overcoming his stutter made him a stronger person. He may well be the best person to be president of the USA right now. If I was a US citizen, I would vote for him without reserve. But I still wish Obama was at the front of all this.
Yes, Obama says this ugly mood in the world is a return to tribalism. In my three books, including both novels, I have argued that tribalism is not just the reason why shy solitary and/or autistic people have trouble fitting into the social world, but the reason for social violence throughout history.
There is in tribalism a kind of group instinct that would see the world destroyed before they would accept any restriction on themselves. The climate change deniers are tribal to their core.
Anyway, there was Obama this week spelling out the problems that face us, and doing it with his consummate skill and flare. If you have trouble with public speaking, as I always have, watch him closely and you will learn a few things.
I suspect that his gift is partly that he carries his speeches with him. That is, the things he says are things that he never stops thinking about. If you took a seat unexpectedly beside him on a train and began a conversation with him, I think you would find those ideas coming out of him as clear and compelling as ever.
My late wife Merle adored Obama, and maybe that’s why I have had to write this today. Obama says the world is at a turning point. It is not just about how you vote in elections – what matters now is what all of us do and say and think every day. That’s something to think about