Obama in His Own Words: 2004 Oprah Interview Revisited

The story's the thing.

Recently Barack Obama told Charlie Rose that his biggest mistake thus far was not engaging the American people with stories.  Conservatives may have laughed, but the president was dead serious.

Storytelling took Obama all the way to the White House; now it needs to win him re-election.

When the state senator from Illinois addressed his fellow Democrats at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he couldn't have been clearer about the importance of the "story."

In his speech, Obama employed what T.S. Eliot calls the "mythical method."  The future presidential candidate, under the guiding hand of David Axelrod, paralleled his contemporary tale of race transcendence with the epic struggle of America's quest for liberty.

I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.

A 2007 New York Times article on the rise of Obama noted that politicians' bios are often seen by critics as "fluff pieces."  But for Axelrod, they supplied "a coordinating presence, a basic story to wrap the campaign around[;] there is precision in the fluff."

In the fifteen years before Obama announced his candidacy for president, the Chicago public relations man "worked through Obama's life story again and again, scouring it for usable political material."

Earlier references to Obama's fondness for incorporating traditional American motifs into his own personal fiction appeared in a 2004 O magazine interview of then-State Senator Obama.  Oprah Winfrey conducted the Q&A soon after the television personality heard the speech she "would never forget." 

The O interview encapsulates Obama's entire story.  The messiah complex; collectivist philosophy; malignant narcissism; condescension toward those Americans he would later say were  bitter, religious gun-clingers; the race card; and most importantly, the value of relating simple, personal stories that resonate with his audience.

The November 2004 "Oprah Talks with Barack Obama" opens with the queen of talk shows reminding Obama of his convention speech and asking, "Will you be the One?" 

Oprah had a pivotal role from the get-go in bringing an unknown Chicago radical to life.  For a woman who lambasted James Frey for his distortions and lies in an inconsequential memoir, it's not surprising that she has suffered a financial backlash against such hypocrisy.

Obama on His 2004 Speech:

Oprah: Did you rehearse?

Barack: It turned out that there was a mock podium backstage where I could practice. I'd never used a teleprompter before.


Oprah: No? Get out!


Barack: I usually speak extemporaneously.


Oprah [
to Barack's wife, Michelle]: Were you nervous for him?

Michelle: We're pretty low-key... He's a terrific speaker; he delivers in so many high-pressure moments. My question was: Will he really knock it out of the park?

Barack: And it's in that moment that you know it's not just about you. It's about the audience and their energy and their story being told through you.

On Being the Messiah and Collectivism:

Oprah: While you were speaking, I was alone in my sitting room cheering and saying, "I think this is the One."

Barack: I think I'm one of the ones. I fight against the notion that blacks can have only one leader at a time. We're caught in that messiah mentality.  Who's the leader of the Korean-American community or the Irish-American community? The reason we don't know the answer is that they've got a collective leadership-people contributing in business, culture, politics. That's the model I want to encourage.

On Race:

Oprah: Do you think we've [the black community] lost the belief that we can succeed? I was talking with Skip Gates [Henry Louis Gates, scholar of African-American history and culture], and he was saying how ironic it is that our parents believed that their little nappy-headed boys and girls could grow up and be somebody if they worked twice as hard.

Barack: We no longer operate that way, but we should be working twice as hard, because we still have challenges and barriers other communities don't have.

On the Bitter Bible-Gun-Clingers and a Pathological Superiority Complex:

Oprah: Isn't politics fun?

Barack: Even in conservative Republican counties, 1,200 people would just show up at 9 on a Sunday morning.


Oprah: Did that response solidify your message?


Barack: It confirms the instincts that got me into politics. I believe the American people are decent people. They get confused sometimes because they get bad information or they're just busy and stressed and not paying attention.

Oprah: Most people honestly want to do as well as they can in their lives.

Barack: Exactly. They've got their struggles and heartaches, but they're basically good.

On Persuading People with Stories:

Oprah: How do you actually get people to be more empathetic?

Barack: ...Images, actions, and stories always speak the loudest. .... Policy has to be guided by facts, but to move people you have to tell stories...When I speak to students, I tell them that one of the most important things we can do is to look through somebody else's eyes.

On Running for Office:

Barack: There's been an interesting confluence of events over the last year [2004] that have Michelle and me looking at each other and talking.

Michelle: When things come together, we know some of it is Barack, some of it is us-but a lot of it has nothing to do with either of us.


Oprah: When your opponents fall by the wayside based on scandal you didn't create...

[i.e.,Jack Ryan unsealed divorce records]

Barack: It's an interesting moment. It makes me feel that much more determined and that much more responsible. It makes me think I've got to make sure that I don't...

Michelle: ...screw it up.

Barack: There's a level of viciousness in politics because power is at stake. Fortunately, most of my past mistakes are ones that people already know about. ... I think the biggest mistake politicians make is being inauthentic. By writing about my mistakes, I was trying to show how I was vulnerable to the same pitfalls as American youth everywhere.

Oprah: Do you think you'll be the first black president?


Barack: A bunch of people have started talking about that. Listen, if you're in politics, at a certain point you think about where to take your career. But at this stage, it's way too premature. Politics is a marathon. So many things can change. You can't plan 12 years ahead.

Twelve years?  What is Obama talking about?  Axelrod said he was creating the Illinois politician's persona for fifteen years before he announced his candidacy for president.

Writing books to expose one's skeletons is a good barrier against future attacks on your character -- and the telling and retelling of the same old stories have been Obama's ticket to power. 

Now, though, the collectivist inside the first black president is starting to bleed through the precisely crafted bio.  Will it be enough to prevent a second term?

Read more M. Catharine Evans at Potter Williams Report.

The story's the thing.

Recently Barack Obama told Charlie Rose that his biggest mistake thus far was not engaging the American people with stories.  Conservatives may have laughed, but the president was dead serious.

Storytelling took Obama all the way to the White House; now it needs to win him re-election.

When the state senator from Illinois addressed his fellow Democrats at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he couldn't have been clearer about the importance of the "story."

In his speech, Obama employed what T.S. Eliot calls the "mythical method."  The future presidential candidate, under the guiding hand of David Axelrod, paralleled his contemporary tale of race transcendence with the epic struggle of America's quest for liberty.

I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.

A 2007 New York Times article on the rise of Obama noted that politicians' bios are often seen by critics as "fluff pieces."  But for Axelrod, they supplied "a coordinating presence, a basic story to wrap the campaign around[;] there is precision in the fluff."

In the fifteen years before Obama announced his candidacy for president, the Chicago public relations man "worked through Obama's life story again and again, scouring it for usable political material."

Earlier references to Obama's fondness for incorporating traditional American motifs into his own personal fiction appeared in a 2004 O magazine interview of then-State Senator Obama.  Oprah Winfrey conducted the Q&A soon after the television personality heard the speech she "would never forget." 

The O interview encapsulates Obama's entire story.  The messiah complex; collectivist philosophy; malignant narcissism; condescension toward those Americans he would later say were  bitter, religious gun-clingers; the race card; and most importantly, the value of relating simple, personal stories that resonate with his audience.

The November 2004 "Oprah Talks with Barack Obama" opens with the queen of talk shows reminding Obama of his convention speech and asking, "Will you be the One?" 

Oprah had a pivotal role from the get-go in bringing an unknown Chicago radical to life.  For a woman who lambasted James Frey for his distortions and lies in an inconsequential memoir, it's not surprising that she has suffered a financial backlash against such hypocrisy.

Obama on His 2004 Speech:

Oprah: Did you rehearse?

Barack: It turned out that there was a mock podium backstage where I could practice. I'd never used a teleprompter before.


Oprah: No? Get out!


Barack: I usually speak extemporaneously.


Oprah [
to Barack's wife, Michelle]: Were you nervous for him?

Michelle: We're pretty low-key... He's a terrific speaker; he delivers in so many high-pressure moments. My question was: Will he really knock it out of the park?

Barack: And it's in that moment that you know it's not just about you. It's about the audience and their energy and their story being told through you.

On Being the Messiah and Collectivism:

Oprah: While you were speaking, I was alone in my sitting room cheering and saying, "I think this is the One."

Barack: I think I'm one of the ones. I fight against the notion that blacks can have only one leader at a time. We're caught in that messiah mentality.  Who's the leader of the Korean-American community or the Irish-American community? The reason we don't know the answer is that they've got a collective leadership-people contributing in business, culture, politics. That's the model I want to encourage.

On Race:

Oprah: Do you think we've [the black community] lost the belief that we can succeed? I was talking with Skip Gates [Henry Louis Gates, scholar of African-American history and culture], and he was saying how ironic it is that our parents believed that their little nappy-headed boys and girls could grow up and be somebody if they worked twice as hard.

Barack: We no longer operate that way, but we should be working twice as hard, because we still have challenges and barriers other communities don't have.

On the Bitter Bible-Gun-Clingers and a Pathological Superiority Complex:

Oprah: Isn't politics fun?

Barack: Even in conservative Republican counties, 1,200 people would just show up at 9 on a Sunday morning.


Oprah: Did that response solidify your message?


Barack: It confirms the instincts that got me into politics. I believe the American people are decent people. They get confused sometimes because they get bad information or they're just busy and stressed and not paying attention.

Oprah: Most people honestly want to do as well as they can in their lives.

Barack: Exactly. They've got their struggles and heartaches, but they're basically good.

On Persuading People with Stories:

Oprah: How do you actually get people to be more empathetic?

Barack: ...Images, actions, and stories always speak the loudest. .... Policy has to be guided by facts, but to move people you have to tell stories...When I speak to students, I tell them that one of the most important things we can do is to look through somebody else's eyes.

On Running for Office:

Barack: There's been an interesting confluence of events over the last year [2004] that have Michelle and me looking at each other and talking.

Michelle: When things come together, we know some of it is Barack, some of it is us-but a lot of it has nothing to do with either of us.


Oprah: When your opponents fall by the wayside based on scandal you didn't create...

[i.e.,Jack Ryan unsealed divorce records]

Barack: It's an interesting moment. It makes me feel that much more determined and that much more responsible. It makes me think I've got to make sure that I don't...

Michelle: ...screw it up.

Barack: There's a level of viciousness in politics because power is at stake. Fortunately, most of my past mistakes are ones that people already know about. ... I think the biggest mistake politicians make is being inauthentic. By writing about my mistakes, I was trying to show how I was vulnerable to the same pitfalls as American youth everywhere.

Oprah: Do you think you'll be the first black president?


Barack: A bunch of people have started talking about that. Listen, if you're in politics, at a certain point you think about where to take your career. But at this stage, it's way too premature. Politics is a marathon. So many things can change. You can't plan 12 years ahead.

Twelve years?  What is Obama talking about?  Axelrod said he was creating the Illinois politician's persona for fifteen years before he announced his candidacy for president.

Writing books to expose one's skeletons is a good barrier against future attacks on your character -- and the telling and retelling of the same old stories have been Obama's ticket to power. 

Now, though, the collectivist inside the first black president is starting to bleed through the precisely crafted bio.  Will it be enough to prevent a second term?

Read more M. Catharine Evans at Potter Williams Report.

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