Obama in Accra: Speech Fatigue

I’m going to offer a cranky, contrarian take on President Barack Obama’s speech in Accra on Saturday. This is the fourth “Speech” (cue the angelic choirs) from the Orator-in-Chief, and if you can’t tell from this post’s title and the preceeding sarcasm, I’ve admittedly got a case of speech fatigue.

Part of it has to do with the fact that the speeches, taken together, reveal a certain Mad Libs formulaic construction, that goes something like this:

In an interconnected world, what happens in [Insert: Host City] will impact the planet. [Insert: Demographic Constituency symbolized by Host City] has already contributed [Insert: Three Historic Accomplishments] to the world. [Alternative: Demographic constituency symbolized by Host City has overcome Three Historical Challenges.] And I’m glad to see the progress that [Insert: Demographic Constituency symbolized by Host City] has made on [Insert: Three Important Policies]. But [Insert: Demographic Constituency symbolized by Host City] needs to face its responsibilities for [Insert: Three Historic Shortcomings].

America is ready to help, but we can’t do it for you. Every step you take, we’ll be a partner along the way. Don’t expect handouts, because times is hard all over. And you better get to work, because Asia is already halfway there.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. Or am I? It’s hard to tell.

In Africa, Obama largely followed that script. Michael Wilkerson, in a run-up to the speech, cited this quote to illustrate that “context matters”:

“When a white man like the French president comes to tell you to putyour house in order it is seen as an offence. When a black brothercomes it is good advice,” Ablade Glover, the Ghanaian painter, said.

The reference is to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s very poorly received speech in Dakar. But as Billie O’Kadameri of Radio France International put it on Friday during the France 24 program, The World This Week, Africa doesn’t need Obama to know that it has a governance problem. There is already an African Union initiative designed to address the issue, and it was the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s Millenium Challenge Corporation initiative. So whether coming from a white or black man — or an American, French or African man, for that matter — the offence/good advice has been delivered countless times.

Which leaves us largely in the realm of political theater, devoid of actual politics. But in theater, you’ve got to actually change your act if you’re going to maintain interest, otherwise it starts wearing thin.

Where Obama did touch on actual politics, it was in the realm of — drumroll, please — aid to Africa. Agricultural aid will henceforth come in the form of transfers of technology and training, as opposed to food deliveries that essentially function as subsidies for the American farm lobby. It’s a great idea, and I’m curious to see both how it fares in Congress, and how much political capital Obama is willing to invest in it in the event it faces challenges. The announcement of a substantial health initiative to fight AIDS, but in the broader context of developing public health systems, is laudable. It also, as Obama himself acknowledged, builds off of Bush’s efforts.

As always, the speech itself was well-done (even if I suspect the White House press team might have preferred a simpler stage backdrop, so that you could actually find Obama on first glance). I also recognize the historical significance of the first black president’s first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa. And as I admitted at the outset, I’m a bit cranky at this point. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not alone.

I imagine there’s still one more of these to go, when Obama finally touches down in Asia. But if I were part of the Team Obama communications braintrust, I would be trying to recalibrate future appearances, with a watchword towards normalization, because to my mind, this was already “The Speech Too Far.”

And change up the script a bit. Unpredictability matters.

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