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Le Nouvel Observateur, France

Obama Re-elected,
Romney Defeated: What
Their Speeches Reveal

By Philippe-Joseph Salazar

Translated By Tabitha Middleton

18 November 2012

Edited by Lau­ren Gerken

France - Le Nouvel Observateur - Original Article (French)

Mitt Romney had a victory speech prepared. He told journalists this shortly before learning that he would not be the 45th president of the United States. Barack Obama gave a model victory speech — an orchestration of the country's central values, according to Philippe-Joseph Salazar, rhetorician and author of “Paroles de Leaders” (“The Words of Leaders”).

In a scene played over and over on American TV channels, Obama is in his campaign office surrounded by his inner circle; someone passes him the phone. It's the governor. He learns that Romney is conceding defeat. The president looks at his team and says, "Classy." Immediately afterward, Romney gives a brief "concession speech." It's 10:40 PM in the United States (East Coast time). At 1:40 AM, the president gives his acceptance speech.

In the United States, this ritual — telephone call, response, concession speech, acceptance speech — is practically a formal requirement. It serves to revive the idea that, now that the competition is over, despite the candidates’ vicious verbal abuse (two days before election day, Obama called voting "the best revenge") there can be a return to true American values and standards of “civility.”

A Necessary Illusion

This belief in "civility” is a necessary illusion in the sense that the electoral battle will recommence in barely a year, in preparation for the Nov. 2014 general election, which will include the biennial congressional elections, as well as elections for a third of the Senate and nearly 40 governors.

Both Obama and Romney also know that the presidential election is an electoral relic, due to the allocation of votes to the Electoral College with no regard to universal suffrage, which in the United States is referred to by the euphemism "popular vote." They both know that only 1,360,000 votes out of 118 million of the votes cast separate the winner from the loser (the difference was 2,700,000 against 700,000 in 2008, so the math says that half the voters changing their minds would be enough to create a majority). A minor difference.

In short, the electorate is cut into two equal and very antagonistic parts. The illusion of civility that sets the stage for the two speeches allows everyone to be in a temporary state of "civility" by ignoring the two facts that I just cited: The impact of the coming election and the question of popular legitimacy.

And they both know that their political careers are coming to an end: Romney and his generation of patriarchal Republicans will pass the torch to young wolves like Paul Ryan, who chairs the Congressional Budget Committee. Republican strategists are already attributing this very easy defeat to the fact that Romney was not "conservative" enough, or, as Obama said, too "classy" (the clincher), not "mean" enough (a qualification that the same strategists applied, with envy, to Obama.)

Two Very Different Speeches

Obama knows that, contrary to his first term, he now only has the Senate, which is always susceptible to being blocked by Republican strategies during proceedings. He is beginning his term in a weak position on Capitol Hill; in other words, he is incapable of putting a plan into action. But, now no longer eligible for re-election, he can slowly forge the image or even the character of a "senior statesman." Even George W. Bush reached this goal after his second term. So Obama has to prove himself "generous" and "civil."

Obama and Romney are perfectly aware of the parameters that shape the rhetoric of their speeches. But it is difficult to imagine two speeches more different than those of Romney and Obama. We also know that Romney only prepared a victory speech and Obama only prepared a concession speech — and rightly so, because both would have spoken in a manner out of their element (Romney lost and Obama is not accustomed to admitting defeat).

The concession speech appeared in France during Nicolas Sarkozy's defeat, imported from the United States. Again, it's important to see how it works.

Romney's speech, without a teleprompter, is brief, about 40 lines. He announces that he called the president to congratulate him, then thanks Paul Ryan, his wife and family, his team and all his supporters. Standard. But the key to his speech, the key that opens and closes his performance is this: "I join with you to earnestly pray for him [Obama] and for this great nation."

In France, we might find this comical. But if Romney, having only set up his campaign in July, with Republican rivals who were not kind to him either before or after his nomination, spoke of "praying" there are two reasons: He owes 58 million votes — half of the electorate (at least a few million votes) — to the conservative Christian base, Protestants and Evangelicals. Secondly, talking about God, even indirectly, certainly allows him, for the last time, to distance himself from the image of the patriarchal millionaire with which the Obama camp has succeeded in branding him. In other words, "class." Case closed. The Ryan generation takes over.

Obama's Model Acceptance Speech

Obama's speech, three hours later, is interesting because it showcases the talking points expected of every acceptance speech. Obama and his closest team members took two hours to create a model acceptance speech of 150 lines, well suited to the president's natural eloquence when facing a sympathetic audience.

The first sentences, strangely referencing "200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny," are a direct rejoinder to Romney's comment about "guiding [the] nation." Obama compares himself to the founding fathers, whose principles are supposed to "guide" America. He then mentions Romney's phone call and offers the usual thanks. In short, protocol is respected.

But the rest of the speech is an orchestration of what American speechwriters know to be the "core values" of which every political argument in the United States must make use:

- Freedom is fundamental: The freedom to choose leaders, the freedom to debate, the freedom to live according to one's own desires, all of which are unique to the "American nation" ("These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty").

- Equality is born from an innate sense of justice, unrivaled by any other nation ("The promise of our founders").

- The opportunity given to all to seize a chance at success (The word "opportunity" is a leitmotif in the speech).

- Just reward for effort ("...A generous America [where] it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from").

- Success (which makes America "the envy of the world").

- Everyday patriotism. ("I've seen it in the family business whose owners would rather cut their own pay than lay off their neighbors... in the soldiers... who charged up the stairs into darkness and danger because they knew there was a buddy behind them watching their back.")

- The innate superiority of the United States ("...We live in the greatest nation on Earth," "Our universities, our culture are all the envy of the world").

- Community ("We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of... states," "What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth").

The orchestration is perfect. He only leaves out one value: Religion, the value that Americans attach to the belief in a supreme being with whom the United States has a unique and privileged relationship. It is absent, except for the ritual "God bless America,” coined by Dwight D. Eisenhower. It is absent in Obama's address because it is omnipresent in Romney's brief speech. Obama had been on shaky ground; out of "civility" he concedes this one value, the only concession he gives his adversary.

The rhetorical ritual is accomplished. The dice roll until the next election and the campaign that will begin in a little over a year.



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