Like many members of the engaged electorate, Upper East Side resident Ian Reifowitz has been listening closely to what President Barack Obama has been saying since he launched his run for office in 2007. But while others listen for content, Reifowitz has been analyzing the specific language choices the president has made, and he’s just released an entire book about it.
The book is called Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, released by Potomac Books this summer, and it’s Reifowitz’s study of the way Obama has used his language to construct an alternate narrative of America.
“The book is really about Obama’s attempt to change or transform our national identity, to really make it live up to our true values, which go back to the Declaration of Independence,” Reifowitz said. “It’s something we haven’t always lived up to, but something we’ve tried to strive toward.”
Reifowitz argues that the way Obama speaks forges a feeling of inclusiveness that other presidents and prominent people before him have not been able to achieve. To research the idea, he listened to every recorded speech that Obama has made throughout his career, first as a lawyer and then as a senator, and read all of his published books, papers and written speeches. What he found was that Obama has been using similar rhetoric throughout his professional life, speaking in a way that emphasizes the unity of the American population rather than the factors that divide.
“Obama is focused on equality,” Reifowitz said. “He’s speaking about American identity in ways that make groups that have historically been excluded feel a sense of inclusion.”
Reifowitz devotes chapters of the book to expounding on how Obama’s word choices reinforce that idea of a diverse but unified America. As a history professor at SUNY’s Empire State College, Reifowitz has experience studying how large communities are formed and identify themselves.
“I’ve been studying multiethnic societies like ours for a really long time,” he said. His first book was on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which he said has many similarities to our current country’s makeup. “Multiethnic societies create a sense of unity among people who aren’t from the same ancestral tribe.”
Reifowitz said that a society valuing a collective identity that’s not based on race or ancestry works against the tendency to value one’s own tribe over others, which historically has been the impetus for violent clashes and horrific policies like those of Nazi Germany.
In the book, Reifowitz argues that Obama has tried to move the country between the extremes that have at various points been the dominant cultural forces, movements that promote separation and inhibit inclusion. The obvious example of this is the systemic racism the U.S. has struggled to eradicate, but Reifowitz said that the radical multiculturalism of the 1980s and ’90s went in the opposite but just as exclusionary direction.
The book also presents some concrete examples of Obama’s policy mirroring his speech.
“[Obama] pushed forward some policies that have worked toward a sense of connectedness and inclusion,” Reifowitz said. “His attempt to bring in the children of illegal immigrants who have the opportunity to apply for a work visa—it’s not just the policy, it’s the way he talks bout them. He says they’re Americans, they came here when they were 4 or 5 years old, they don’t know any other home. His move to support gay marriage is another area where he pushes for inclusion.”
But Reifowitz emphasizes that it’s not just in his liberal or Democratic polices that Obama’s rhetoric signals a call to unite Americans—it’s in everything he does.
“On an overall perspective, it’s not an easy thing to get a really diverse population like America to feel itself as one community,” Reifowitz said. “We’re not born with an American flag stamped on our head. We’ve got to teach each other. We teach our child that some kid in Idaho or Ohio is part of one American community.”
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