Obama Shifts His Point of View

In a prime time speech delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point last week, President Barack Obama committed 30,000 more troops to fight the war in Afghanistan. His decision was consistent with a policy he had stated during his campaign for the presidency in 2007:

I did not oppose all wars, I said. I was a strong supporter of the war in Afghanistan.

And then stated again in 2008:

We have to understand that the situation is precarious and urgent here in Afghanistan. And I believe this has to be our central focus, the central front, on our battle against terrorism...I think one of the biggest mistakes we've made strategically after 9/11 was to fail to finish the job here, focus our attention here...For at least a year now, I have called for two additional brigades, perhaps three.

But the West Point speech did mark a significant change in his rhetorical style; from an audience-focused to a self-focused point of view. In the past, throughout his presidential campaign and in his historic Inaugural Address, Obama involved his audiences by deploying the word "you" extensively in his speeches, a technique you read about in an earlier blog. His Inaugural Address had 15 instances of "you" which, when combined with other inclusive words--23 instances of "us," 62 of "we," and 70 instances of "our"--connected him with his audience. The technique was noted by Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic of the New York Times:

As in most of his major speeches, Mr. Obama repeatedly referred to "us" and "we," while playing down his own role as a leader. His few references to himself were put in the service of making a larger point about America.

In the West Point speech, however, he used "you" only ten times, with four of them in the closing, "Thank you. God bless you. May God bless the United States of America. Thank you very much. Thank you." That left only six instances of the powerful word in the body of the speech. In sharp contrast, he used "I" 41 times, a shift that prompted Peggy Noonan, a Wall Street Journal political columnist--and former presidential speechwriter--to exclaim, "I, I--ay yi yi. This is a man badly in need of an I-ectomy." She went on to explain:

George H.W. Bush famously took the word "I" out of his speeches--we called them "I-ectomies"-- because of a horror of appearing to be calling attention to himself. Mr. Obama is plagued with no such fears. "When I took office . . . I approved a long-standing request . . . After consultations with our allies I then . . . I set a goal." That's all from one paragraph. Further down he used the word "I" in three paragraphs an impressive 15 times. "I believe I know," "I have signed," "I have read," "I have visited."

Granted, any senior executive--from the President of the United States to a mid-level manager in business--must take full responsibility for all decisions and actions, but Obama must not and cannot abandon the technique that helped get him elected.

It is all about "you" and not hubris.