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Obama speech setting invokes history

President Obama will speak on the economy Wednesday at Knox College in Illinois, where he delivered his first major speech as a senator in 2005. It was also the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate.

July 24, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • People wait in line at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., for tickets to President Obama's speech there Wednesday.
People wait in line at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., for tickets to President… (Steve Davis, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — As the White House tried to pique interest in President Obama's plan to speak Wednesday about the economy, aides promised a "big speech" that would be a sequel to the president's 2011 remarks in Osawatomie, Kan., where Teddy Roosevelt delivered an economic speech with similar themes a century earlier.

If that weren't pedigree enough, the White House also noted Obama would be returning to Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.. The school, the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate, is where he delivered his first major address — also on the economy — after he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

The billing for the speech reflects this White House's fondness for burnishing Obama's remarks with historical and self-referential flourishes. Whether to add gravitas, context or hype, the White House has ensured that much of Obama's oratory comes with a prologue from the past.

Obama's second Galesburg address comes after his speech at the University of Cape Town, the centerpiece of a weeklong trip to Africa. The university, White House aides and the president noted repeatedly, was the scene of Sen. Robert Kennedy's 1966 call for an end to apartheid that became known for its riff on "ripples of hope."

A couple of weeks earlier, Obama delivered an address at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, where two previous presidents had made history. It's not yet clear if Obama did.

This penchant can be traced back much further. Obama's official announcement of his candidacy for president was delivered in 2007 on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where President Lincoln had declared "a house divided against itself cannot stand."

"Divided, we are bound to fail," Obama said.

Wrapping his remarks in history — personal and presidential — is a strategy employed with a deft hand by the Obama team, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It's an explicit effort to get the press to pick up the narrative line that they are trying to create," she said. "What this White House has been trying to do is provide some of the cues to create an historical context … and increase the likelihood the press writes from them."

What the White House sees as useful historical background Republicans view as presumptuous packaging for speeches that are little more than repetitive retreads. The announcement of Obama's speech this week was met with scoffs from Republicans on Capitol Hill, who mocked the White House for touting another "major speech" while also acknowledging it would include scarcely anything the president has not already said.

"This week the world is introduced to an historic arrival: another speech on the economy by President Obama," wrote Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "Yes, on Wednesday, the president will deliver his umpteenth iteration of a speech the White House concedes he's been giving for eight years now."

The White House isn't setting high expectations for immediate action. Press Secretary Jay Carney said the speech would discuss "a broader proposition" about the future of the middle class.

"This is not, what can Congress do in the next few weeks or few months; not, what can Washington do even in the next three years? It's about a longer view of this country's future economically," he said. Obama will follow up with speeches in Missouri and Florida highlighting more specific policy solutions.

The White House characterizes the repetition as consistency, calling Obama's 2005 commencement address at Knox College an early expression of the future president's economic views.

Former White House speechwriter Jon Favreau has said he places that address near the top of his most memorable oratory and often returned to it for inspiration. Former Al Gore speechwriter Robert Lehrman, a communications professor at American University, uses it in his classes as a model for good structure.

Lehrman said the speech outlines clearly the themes that would drive Obama's rise: "Basically it's easy to see why they're returning there. He's basically saying I'm the same guy you liked then."

The return to Galesburg also demonstrates some of the risk in inviting then-and-now comparisons.

The Knox College speech bemoans the closure of a Maytag plant and looks ahead to the shift to a high-tech globalized economy. Obama's prescriptions include a public school overhaul, health insurance that follows workers from employer to employer, and increased government spending on medical research and green technologies, such as electric cars.

In the last eight years, Obama has continued to advocate some of these proposals with varying success. In most cases, he's been forced to compromise or curb his expectations.

"It may force some people to think, 'Boy, was he naive,'" Jamieson said.

A look back at the past is also a reminder of how early this president was prepped to claim a place in history. As he opened his remarks to the graduates, the new senator from Illinois joked that he had been taken aback by a reporter's question on his first day: "Sen. Obama, what is your place in history?"

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