Obama’s farewell speech, eloquent and passionately delivered, spoke to a divided nation in need of a bridge between two very different presidents. He called on the foundations of our democracy, and the core values of citizenship in the US, to remind us that we are, at our heart, a nation dedicated to service. He said: This is “why we serve. Not to score points or take credit, but to make people’s lives better.”
Simple language, directly said, and straight to the heart of the matter. Eloquent language doesn’t need to be complex, but it has to be specific. The speech gave example after example of this kind of service leadership, and the citizenship values associated with it, calling for justice and unity: “We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.”
Unabashedly, specifically and eloquently, he created a space for hopeful service leadership on the grassroots level in this speech. His ability to convey complex ideas in accessible ways has always been a strength, and a central part of his leadership effectiveness. His ability to make language meaningful and powerful has made him a world leader as well as a persuasive one.
Those who disagree with his Democratic stand will find him less eloquent, no doubt, but there can be no doubt of what he is saying, or that he believes it. His message is clear. And this is essential for a presidential leader, because by default, he leads everyone, Democrat, Republican, and Independent. So clarity and eloquence may not always persuade, but it is always necessary, for any president.
The incoming president has a difficult role to fill, and Obama’s engaged and informed eloquence will be difficult to equal. His message is clear (if not entirely consistent), and his bluntness appeals to his devoted followers. But now he must speak to all of us, not just those who voted for him. If Trump is to be an effective president, he has to master new skills, and take advantage of the bridge Obama built to persuade people across the party aisle to follow and trust him.
While language in and of itself is just a tool, it is a tool that any president must use well in order to take on the difficult role he (or some day she) has chosen. If Trump can rise to the challenge of presenting himself in accurate, articulate and specific language that builds unity, he may become the president his followers believe him to be. It will be up to him (and his team of writers and strategists) to build credibility through meaningful language and a message that inspires loyalty.