It’s the promise, stupid! Obama’s DNC speech

The pre-speech favourite would no doubt have been “change”. Some thought it would be George Bush. Others John McCain, or Iraq. Others again thought it would actually be the economy, stupid – or something related, like jobs. Some commentators were speculating about Martin Luther King, given the date of the acceptance speech. Admittedly, very few thought it would be bowling and only the most tongue-in-cheek observer would have said frappacino or Chardonnay. Still, on the topic of what Obama talked about most when accepting the nomination for President from the Democratic party, they were all wrong!

So what was the top topic on Barack Obama’s mind – or at least in his mouth – when he gave his DNC acceptance speech yesterday evening in Denver? It turns out to have been promise – at least according to the official version of the speech given to the media. A full word cloud of the speech is below and makes for interesting reading, at least if you go away first and try to come up with a list of words you expect to make the top five:

Word cloud from Barack Obama's DNC acceptance speech, Aug 2008

Obama DNC speech word cloud

Does this really tell us anything? Well, for a start, there were indeed lots of good old reliables. John McCain and George Bush do feature strongly, while change and the economy also feature. But the singular prominence of promise is striking. And I think it does go back to Martin Luther King.

To me, the concept of “promise” – both in the sense of something that is owed and in the sense of potential for the future – ties in quite strongly with the theme of the promissory note from Dr King’s speech 45 years ago. The exact passage from Dr King’s speech is:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

You can see quite clearly both sides of promise coming out in that speech too. It then got me thinking about what were the great themes in Dr King’s speech. What did his word cloud look like? The answer is below:

Dr King I have a dream speech cloud

Dr King I have a dream speech cloud

Freedom is of course the clear winner, Negro probably wouldn’t make too many speeches these days, but if you look closely, you can of course see ‘promissory’ up in the top.

Interesting that a motif of Dr King’s speech could emerge as the key theme, replacing ‘change’, for Obama’s campaign. It will be interesting to see over the coming weeks whether “promise” suffers from the same problem “change” suffered from, and which all currencies suffer from when there is over-supply, a fall in real value!

Any takers on what McCain’s top phrase will be?

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