Should Obama Boast Like Beowulf?

Obama at the Democratic National Convention

There has been a range of responses from the political commentariat about Barack Obama’s convention speech, from those who found it anticlimactic to those who thought its policy orientation and workman-like quality were just what was needed. I lean towards the second judgment—I’ve always preferred the pragmatic Obama to the soaring Obama—but criticism from one New Republic columnist I respect got me thinking about the difference between Obama’s and Beowulf’s leadership styles. I also thought that a young high school acquaintance of mine, who disapproves of Beowulf, would probably prefer Obama’s approach.

The column was by Timothy Noah, who complained that Obama didn’t brag enough about his biggest accomplishments—which is to say, about the largest stimulus in the country’s history that stopped the downward slide of the recession, universal healthcare that has eluded presidents going all the way back to FDR, and a financial reform bill that “marked what could be the start of an historic reversal of decades of regulatory indulgence that led to the 2008 crash.”

Noah worries that, instead of following in the tradition of the ebullient FDR and trumpeting what he has done, Obama verged on the self-criticism of Jimmy Carter. Here’s one of the passages from the speech that Noah had in mind:

“And while I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’” Just because our greatest president was a bit depressive, that doesn’t mean we want the present one to lacerate himself over his failures, and we certainly don’t want to hear him tell us about it. The mention of FDR only served to remind us of how different, temperamentally, Obama is from the Democratic party’s “happy warrior” tradition.

Noah accuses Obama of humblebragging and said that, after hearing the speech, he thought for the first time that the president might lose the election. For that matter, the always irascible Maureen Dowd of the New York Times lacerates Obama, not only for the speech but for Obama’s failures, reflected in the speech, to fight the Republicans harder.

I don’t know if Noah is right to be worried, but I suspect that Rosie Click, daughter of a colleague, probably prefers Obama’s humility (or false humility) to Beowulf’s full-throated boasting. When she complains that Beowulf is too full of himself, she probably has in mind passages like his self-introduction to Hrothgar, the Danish king whose hall is the subject of Grendel’s attacks:

Greetings to Hrothgar. I am Hygelac’s kinsman,
one of his hall-troop. When I was younger,
I had great triumphs. Then news of Grendel,
hard to ignore, reached me at home . . .
So every elder and experienced councilman
among my people supported my resolve
to come here to you, King Hrothgar,
because all knew of my awesome strength.
They had seen me bolstered in the blood of enemies
when I battled and bound five beasts,
raided a troll-nest and in the night-sea
slaughtered sea-brutes. I have suffered extremes
and avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it
upon themselves; I devastated them).
Now I mean to be a match for Grendel,
settle the outcome in single combat.

I can understand why Beowulf, who is young and unknown, would find the need to talk himself up. He has to instill confidence in his men, who have followed him across dark seas to take on a troll in a foreign land. He also has to impress a legendary king. He’d better communicate self-confidence.

So should Obama have talked this way about his own accomplishments? Or was he right in taking a different rhetorical approach and crediting us, his supporters, with the victories of the past three years? I’m open to debate on this matter.

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  • farida


    I’m not sure about humility or false humility. Over the course of the last few weeks I’ve lost some faith in journalists whose voices I expected to trust to report in a balanced and intelligent manner.

    Whatever one’s disappointments in what Pres. Obama hasn’t achieved in his first term..I believe he has done his best given the context ( the economy, an opposition that wasn’t interested in working with him and the race issue) and I think he understands his mistakes. In some ways I think this election will be the real barometer of the “black” President issue. It also will be a test, I think, of the question of citizenship that he raised in his speech: People going out and voting not in search of the high of voting a black president into office for the first time, but soberly exercising their civic duty.

    I haven’t listened to all the speeches but I think the Democrat strategists were counting on the fact that people would listen to Clinton’s speech and the others such as Biden, Castro and Kerry to provide the more aggressive counterpoints to the Republicans on the issues of achievements etc. That’s the impression I got..whether that strategy worked, is up for debate. It seems to me the Clinton speech provided a lot of talking points for the media. The lead up was to Obama make his appeal to the population to not lose faith and go out and do the serious business of voting and perhaps to remind people of why they fell in love with him in the first place. I think The NY times had an article on the notion that Obama’s task was to make Americans fall in love with him again. I think the Democrats strategy is to encourage Americans to vote not just with their hearts but with their minds as well. And I think that’s what Barack spoke to in his speech.

    As for Obama not bragging about his achievements and crediting his supporters with those achievements. I think that was deliberate. He was re-affirming in the voters mind that it is incumbent upon them to uphold the values of decency, civility and fairness. As a leader entering an election, he had to reaffirm in people’s mind that the locus of power is in their hands and that they are capable of using it that power judiciously and to a higher purpose. I think he was also deliberately rejecting the self aggrandizement of “the we (essentially “I”) built it” mantra of the Republican convention. For President Obama it was about moving forward..and building together.

    Here’s hoping he wins…

  • Sue

    Great comments, Farida. I always appreciate your view as someone outside the political system of the US.


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