Barack Obama’s pauses

The defining feature / of a presidency


When Barack Obama won election to the White House in 2008, briskness seemed the order of the day. “Yes we can” was his campaign slogan, delivered in a no-nonsense style, redolent with purpose. With hindsight, listeners should perhaps have noticed that between the “Yes” and the “we can” lay the briefest of hesitations, a micro-gap, deserving of a comma and sometimes even given one. For this, as it turned out, was a president who was to be famous for his pauses.

With the pauses went a crinkling of the chin, sometimes defiantly raised, sometimes sombrely lowered. His head, having turned to the right to make his first point and end on an uplift, would then turn to the left to gracefully conclude. His shoulders, though, stayed rigid, his arms by his sides. Meanwhile, his listeners waited for the calm and swift resumption.

The list of notable silences was long. In his presidential acceptance speech in Chicago in 2008, his most stirring sentence contained ten of them:

If there is anyone out there/ who still doubts/ that America is a place/ where all things are possible,/ who still wonders/ if the dream of our Founders/ is alive in our time,/ who still questions/ the power of our democracy,/ tonight/ is your answer.

At a memorial service in Charleston, South Carolina, after the massacre of nine members of a black church in 2015, he waited 13 full seconds between mentioning “Amazing Grace” and beginning, astonishingly, to sing it: the sort of “live silence” treasured by Southern preachers. As he was announcing his new immigration policy in June 2012, he paused for such a time that a rude journalist butted in, assuming he had finished. Stephen Colbert, a comedian, defended the intruder, pointing out that it was often impossible to guess whether the president had finished speaking or not. His pausing was so ingrained that Mr Colbert called it “POTUS Interruptus”. One blog accused Mr Obama of “hypnotic trance induction on millions of unaware Americans”.

Intermission accomplished

Scholars studied it. Some noticed that his speech had undergone a general slowing, from 180-190 words per minute when campaigning to many fewer once elected. Three Turkish professors of linguistics wrote a dissertation on his placing of pauses before or after prepositions; the latter were longer, although Mr Obama “maintain[ed] the integrity of syntactical/lexical chunks” (to general relief). A doctoral student from Utrecht counted the president’s pauses during a 9.21-minute interview, recording 106 “uhs” and 18 “ums”. George W. Bush, over the same time-span, used only half as many of each; but when he paused, he was taken for an idiot, whereas Mr Obama was hailed as a great orator. The student concluded that Mr Obama filled his pauses with an almost inaud­ible hum, a musing continuation suggesting cool control; Mr Bush gave the impression he had forgotten what the hell he was saying.

Pundits also argued hotly over what the pauses implied. To Mr Obama’s supporters they were a sign of wisdom, of caution and careful thought. This was not a hothead who would rush into foreign adventures, in Libya, over Ukraine or, especially, in Syria. He would weigh the pros and cons. He represented a more circumspect America, after his gung-ho predecessor’s forays into Afghanistan and Iraq. Two of his greatest foreign-policy coups, the nuclear deal with Iran and the opening to Cuba, were the result of long and labor­ious diplomacy. A third, the killing of Osama bin Laden, showed how decisive he could be, if he chose. Since America’s overweening military power gave him a big stick anyway, he concentrated on the “speak softly” part. Or rather, speak loudly enough, and then suddenly, commandingly, pause.

At home, too, he pursued wide-ranging policies—health-care reform, cleaner air, financial regulation—with calm deliberation, and reacted with equanimity when a hostile Congress squashed the rest. He responded to a series of appalling mass-shootings with speeches laced with the pauses of genuine emotion; but even these could not persuade Congress to enact gun controls. Having intervened as best he could, he gave up. Nor did he embroil himself in the dirty business of elbow-twisting on Capitol Hill, but sat apart, like Rodin’s “Thinker”, in noble and lofty silence.

His detractors saw his pauses differently. This was a man almost incapable of making up his mind—or, if he did, of following through. The moment he took office, he promised to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay: eight years later, it remained open. He took months to decide whether to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and, if so, how many. He pursued the rights of migrants’ children to be citizens, but then dropped the idea. He said he had drawn a red line over Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons; the weapons were used, but the red line disappeared. The heavy role of commander-in-chief was clearly a torment to him, demanding many and copious intakes of breath. For better or worse, as with Hamlet, “the native hue of resolution” was “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”.

The result, in sum, was a presidency conducted in a state of steadily declining suspense. Things would change! Certainly./  Probably./  Possibly./  Tomorrow./  Next week./  By the end of 2016./  And then time was up—

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