President Barack Obama wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times this week in response to Jim Rutenberg’s recent tour-de-force piece ‘‘A Dream Undone: Inside the 50-year campaign to roll back the Voting Rights Act.’’ In the letter, Obama muses on the now-gutted Voting Rights Act and systematic attempts to deny certain groups the right to vote. He focuses mostly on 94-year-old Rosanell Eaton, a key character in Rutenberg’s piece and someone who is now — just as she was 70 years ago — fighting to maintain her voting rights:
“It’s a cruel irony that the words that set our democracy in motion were used as part of the so-called literacy test designed to deny Rosanell and so many other African-Americans the right to vote. Yet more than 70 years ago, as she defiantly delivered the Preamble to our Constitution, Rosanell also reaffirmed its fundamental truth. What makes our country great is not that we are perfect, but that with time, courage, and effort, we can become more perfect. What makes America special is our capacity to change.”
Love him or hate him, it’s impossible to deny that Barry can sure turn a hell of a phrase. His letter to the editor suits his rhetorical style: The man (or his speechwriter) is a talented scribe with two fingers firmly pressed to the pulse of poetic America. The newspaper might very well be on its way out, but Obama should do his darndest to milk the form as much as he can during the final 1.5 years of his presidency. This is his forté.
The president has stumbled in the past when sliding outside this comfort zone. I should note that he and his handlers have done a nice job utilizing emerging forms of new media in unprecedented ways. The quality of those efforts just hasn’t always been great. For example, Big Think expert Charlene Li
recently deconstructed one of the president’s visits to Reddit and found faults in the way he approached the format:
Obama’s recent appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast
was a marked improvement, as the president seemed to shed some of his layers of artificiality when conversing with the host. His time on Twitter has been somewhat underwhelming
since he entered onto the scene with a light-hearted crank directed at Bill Clinton. You have to hand it to the man for trying. He obviously understands that any political figure who wants to make an impact needs to maintain activity on these new forms of media.
But at the end of the day Obama is an academic, not a socialite. His strength and charisma are drawn from his rhetoric, both spoken and on paper. When he wants to show the world he’s serious about an issue, it’s in his best interest to do exactly what he did in his Times letter.
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