Obama's Best Speeches -- The Definitive Ranking


The 2016 election has been depressing me lately, and I’ve spent some time thinking about Obama, and how much I am going to miss him. Whether you are voting for Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump, it’s safe to say that neither of them is inspiring us on any level, especially in comparison to the type of campaign this country experienced in 2008. That being said, as Barack Obama’s time in office nears its end, I’ve decided to rank and briefly analyze his best speeches. For say what you want about the man, you cannot deny he gives a great speech. (Ed. note: I didn’t include any Youtube links, but recommend watching any of the speeches which intrigue you in their entirety, as they are living history).

1. The AME Church Eulogy

The Occasion: Nine African Americans were killed by a radicalized 21-year white, southern racist while gathered for Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June of 2015.

Comments: Quite simply, Obama’s singing of Amazing Grace near the end is one of the most memorable moments in U.S. Presidential History. The speech itself is a beautiful eulogy on each of the lives stolen by the racist gunman, but it’s Obama’s ability to relate the violence which occurred to his hopes for what he finds best in America, that is what makes this his most poignant work. I dare you to watch the entire thing without choking up. Of course, like all masterpieces, its conclusion is the most iconic feature. Obama’s impromptu singing of one of the more eloquent hymns in the canon is the thing that captures, and therefore relieves, the pain of that day for the viewer (and all Americans). He simultaneously provides council, consoles our griefs, lessens our pain, and contextualizes the tragedy. I can’t think of any other president who could do something like this; but then again, there is—and only will be—one Obama

2. “A More Perfect Union”

The Occasion: In March of 2008, Obama’s longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright (who I watched preach on Super Bowl Sunday, 2002, in order to fulfill a church Confirmation class requirement) was filmed screaming inflammatory statements about white Americans while on the pulpit and subsequently refused to apologize.

Comments: This speech, which was handwritten by Obama in a Philadelphia hotel room, is basically an entire sociology course on American racism. Any high school teacher could make his life easier by showing it to his students once per year. Many classic Obama hallmarks are here in this early work: framing through pairs of opposites, the eventual reconciliation of said dichotomies, the use of assonance, the rhythmic touch of his words, the structure of history to frame his point, the pregnant pauses, the lilt of his voice when becoming emotional, and, of course, forming the conclusion around the stories of ordinary Americans to drive his point home. While all of his speeches read well, this is the one that will probably be featured in history books 90 years from now. That is, if we still know how to read.

3. 2008 Election Victory Speech

The Occasion: Obama defeated war hero Senator John McCain to become the 44th President of the United States.

Comments: To this day, this is the proudest I’ve ever been as an American. It’s disconcerting to think that my patriotism may have peaked at age 21, but then again, I think Obama was worth the peak. There are many things I like about this one: His humbleness, its eloquence, the passages of history that mark this unique triumph for the nation, the early olive branch to Republicans, his “Ann Nixon Cooper” conclusion (one of the best ever, by the way), the Remember The Titans music playing in the background as he shakes Joe Biden’s hand, his suit and tie combination, the 100,000 people gathered on hand, the lights of Chicago in the background. Dear God, what a moment this was to be alive.

4. 2004 Convention Speech

The Occasion: A, then unelected, 41-year old Obama, somehow (and I’m still not even sure how he pulled this off) managed to secure the Keynote Speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. From what I remember, he impressed a few important Kennedys during his Illinois Senate run against Blair Hull and Alan Keyes (which, regrettably, I could not vote in, as I was only 17) and they quickly realized the party had a prodigy on its hands, not unlike young JFK. After some good ole fashioned Massachusetts arm twisting, John Kerry begrudgingly allowed the unknown state senator the prime speaking slot at his convention. Nine years later, Obama would respond by giving Kerry his dream job, Secretary of State.

Comments: This is the speech which launched the Obama Legend. It’s a little long-winded, mainly because he gives us the cliff notes version of his biography (which, by now, is well known to Obama fans and enemies alike), but there are still moments of greatness in it. His famous “There is not a Red America, there is not a Blue America,” line still plays well, even if the future would reveal it’s basic falsehood. And his plug of various uber-liberal causes like gay rights and universal health-care seems stunning for 2004, say nothing of right now, when we realize what he accomplished in two terms as President. While it’s lacking the pure, unadulterated fire-power of other nominees on this list, I probably have it ranked so high because there would be no Obama without this speech. He looks comically young, essentially boyish while speaking up there, but it’s still the moment in time where we watched the man who would be king introduce himself to the nation.

5. 2016 Convention Speech

The Occasion: During the 2016 Democratic National Convention to nominate Hillary Clinton, Obama chose to speak on her behalf on the Wednesday night of the proceedings.

Comments: There’s a chance, depending on if we all die in a nuclear holocaust caused by a President Trump diplomatic miscalculation, that this speech will be the companion piece to Pericles “Funeral Oration”. Pericles, who spoke eloquently of the greatness of the Athenian Empire and the risk of internal infighting during the early stages of the Peloponnesian War, was eventually succeeded at the end of the conflict by demagogue par excellence, Alcibiades. For those of you who don’t know who these people are, they lived in Greece during the mid-to-late 400s B.C. Here, in 2016, history repeats itself as Obama speaks eloquently on the “eternal values that make us American” while subsequently equating “homegrown demagogues” as a threat to these same values, one on par with known evils like Fascism, Communism, and Jihadism. It’s one of Obama’s best delivered speeches, and, much like Pericles, could be a clarion call to future societies, especially the highly advanced ones created by artificial intelligence who will study the remains of our civilization thousands of years from now.

The Honorable Mention (or those who didn’t make the cut):

2008 Convention Speech

What’s good about it: This was a triumphant moment for Obama fans, as the speech nominating him as the first African American of a major political party occurred 45 years to the day of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The problem is it’s extremely long and rather dull. It’s basically a list of everything Obama hopes to accomplish as president and an argument of why he should be elected (as if it was even a choice).

Why it didn’t make the cut: As I said, it’s boring and doesn’t age well, even eight years out. I think his best line is, “Americans do not keep their eye on what is seen. They keep it on what is unseen, that better place around the bend.” Always the optimist, that Obama.

Iowa Caucus Victory Speech

What’s good about it: This was the first national Obama victory! And to think he was supposed to come in third when campaigning began. It’s a rousing, fired-up speech that touches on a favorite Obama theme, the power of hope, and leaves its viewer enthralled. I remember Chris Matthews stating that he “had a thrill up (his) leg” when it was all said and done. I think I did too, Chris. It was the moment when the Obama dream actually seemed like a plausible reality.

Why it didn’t make the cut: There are some outrageous overstatements in this one; none more so of when he speaks of how we will remember this moment as “the moment when sea levels started to sink”. Yeah right. He’s so over-the-top and childishly idealistic that he comes across as something of a black Marco Rubio. Let’s just move on.

2008 South Carolina Primary Victory Speech

What’s good about it: Following a major victory over Hilary Clinton in their epic primary battle, this speech was more of a sigh of relief for the Obama coalition. The fired-up crowd behind him gets more credit than anything. My God, has there ever been a better Obama crowd? I remember watching this before heading out in L.A. for a night of harmless depravity and getting goosebumps up my neck as he shouted into the microphone: “And as we move forward, with a new wind at our backs, from the plains of Iowa to the hills of New Hampshire, from the Nevada desert to the South Carolina coast…we remember that same message we carry: that out of many we are one, that while we breath we will hope, and where we are met with cynicism and doubt and fear and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the American people in three simple words: Yes, we can.” Dear God, maybe this one should be ranked higher. It’s getting dusty in here.

What it didn’t make the cut: While his primary victory over Hilary was a major moment for Democratic politics (it essentially realigned the black vote within the party, something no one in the Clinton campaign saw coming), this speech doesn’t have much historical significance. There’s also a chance I’m the only one in the country who remembers this South Carolina Primary and has watched the Youtube video of it in the past seven years.

“Yes We Can!” 2008 New Hampshire Concession Speech

What’s good about it: Following only the second loss of his political career (the first being an utter ass-kicking at the hands of Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) in the 2000 Democratic Congressional Primary), Obama needed to come out and make sense of what happened. Coming into New Hampshire, Obama was riding a wave of momentum we really hadn’t seen before in American politics, but he made the mistake of saying, “You’re likable enough, Hillary” in the middle of their televised debate (which, if she wins this upcoming election, should go on her tombstone as I can’t think of a better way to describe Hillary Clinton’s relationship with the rest of the country). More bad news followed the next day after she cried during a luncheon with soccer moms. Thousands of New Hampshire voters swung back to her side, ensuring a stunning victory.

Why it didn’t make the cut: There’s an awful music video floating out there that was made out of the highlights from this speech. It’s not worth rehashing now, but I think that music video directly contributed to his protracted primary fight against Clinton. It’s so corny.

2012 Convention Speech

What’s good about it: Obama touted his first-term accomplishments while systematically listing all of the reasons why Mitt Romney and the Republicans in office would be an unequivocal disaster for the nation.

Why it didn’t make the cut: In retrospect, the 2012 election was probably the most boring and anti-climactic electoral fight we’ve had in this country since 1996. It was only four years ago and I can remember exactly three things about it: A) Obama’s awful first debate performance B) Romney’s infamous “47%” comment caught on video, and C) Romney’s hilarious “I’ve got binders full of women” remark at the second debate. In comparison to 2016, with its civility, blandness, and use of fact-based arguments, this election seems like it happened on another planet.

So there you have: The definitive Obama speech rankings. Depending on who wins the 2016 election, just remember, whether we’re being ruled by a lunatic or a liar, if you ever want to go back in time and remember what it was like when a different person was president, he’s only a Youtube click away.