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"Comparisons of the Political Rhetoric of President Barack Obama and Chicago Mayor Harold Washington"

From the abstract for a presentation at the conference, “Texting Obama,” at Manchester Metropolitan University (U.K.), on September 8, 2010 by Assoc. Prof. Alton Miller, Columbia College Chicago . Click above for presesentation slides.

Who does this describe? He became the first black politician elected to the highest office. His chosen campaign message had focused on change and reform. But in practice, it had been a hard-fought duel on the tightrope of race. Even friends who acknowledged his charisma and professional merits argued that the electorate wasn't ready for a black candidate. The language of the campaign was crafted to consolidate his progressive base, while avoiding white reaction to an "angry black". The rhetorical challenges were further complicated by the fact that his opponent in the Democratic primary was a woman, the frontrunner, whose supporters he would later need. Yet with the help of an unprecedented outpouring of grass-roots activism, he achieved the majority he needed to take office. He knew that Election Day would not be the end of the contest. Once he was in office, the real campaign would begin. With the help of a team of young enthusiasts, including strategist and wordsmith David Axelrod, he confronted the challenge with undaunted, even cheery optimism, trusting that his deeds, framed by his words, would overcome the obstacles.

Yes, that describes Barack Obama - but it also describes Harold Washington, who in 1983 overcame racist hostility, and the political advantages of both the incumbent Jane Byrne, and young Richard M. Daley, to be elected the first African-American mayor of the city of Chicago.

Harold Washington's election was a transformative moment for all Chicagoans, and for progressives across America. Obama, then living in New York, was personally, immediately impressed, enough to pull up stakes and move to Chicago and trade his career options for the role of community organizer. He has frequently acknowledged that he was inspired by Washington's politics and charisma. The influences can be traced along several strands, running through Washington's use of both formal political rhetoric and informal communications. From his instinctive choice of idiom; to his adroit application of the opportunities afforded first to a challenger, later to an incumbent; to the disarming power of humor; to his use of language both to set himself apart and to bring himself close to his audiences; and even his management of silences; Harold Washington's communications palette matched his talents as a master of political rhetoric.

President Obama seems to have learned from Washington the advantages available to "the other", through manipulation of the cognitive dissonance between stereotyped initial impressions and carefully managed personal and mediated discourse. Like Mayor Washington, President Obama has proven skillful at reaching his target audiences through a profound understanding of the agenda of the agenda of mainstream media, plus alternative media and technology.

The Obama connection is greatly intensified in the influence of his collaborator David Axelrod. As Axelrod has told an interviewer, "it's clear the experience of Harold Washington was a defining moment in the formation of his [Obama's] political consciousness." Axelrod sees Obama as a marker of progress, writing the second act of a story that Washington started.

Alton Miller, associate dean of the School of Media Arts at Columbia College Chicago, the late mayor's speechwriter and press secretary, illuminates the points of comparison.



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