Unsolicited Advice for Barack Obama: Use “We” Instead of “I”

In the spirit of even-handedness, let’s follow our recent “help” for John McCain with some unsolicited advice for Barack Obama. In Obama’s case, we’ll need to get more subtle — he and his people have the mechanics of running for office pretty much down, and I bet they could write their own Online Politics 101.

But here’s something to think about — when Obama is describing what he and his administration would do, why does he so often say “I” instead of “we?” The campaign certainly uses “we” effectively in other settings (see: “Yes We Can”), and so does Obama himself in his best speeches, but when he’s talking off the cuff, it’s often “I” “I” “I.” Is this why people say he sounds cocky? “Cocky” could be code for “uppity” (with all of its racial overtones), but I’ve heard Obama described as arrogant-seeming by people who mean him well and are worried by how he comes off.

Partly it’s a side effect of his youth and aggressiveness (this is not a guy who likes to lose at anything), but would it change people’s sense of him if he shifted the emphasis away from what HE plans to do personally? One approach would be to use the Royal We, though perhaps that’s only appropriate after November unless he has tapeworms, but he could easily use “we” in the sense of “we as a team.” After all, an administration IS a collective affair, with thousands of appointees making policy. And if there’s one critique of the Bush administration that honest people on the Left and Right can agree on, it’s that it has been run disastrously — from Washington to Baghdad the Gulf Coast, the Bushies have made ridiculously bad decisions. “We” as a team is a subtle way to drive home the idea that an Obama administration WOULD be a wholesale change in government, and it also might remind people that a President Obama won’t just be relying on his (limited) personal experience alone.

“We” is also inherently humble, whereas “I” goes it alone, and a little bit of humble wouldn’t hurt a confident young guy running for the highest office in the land — real humility would be best, but in politics we can settle for the fake version. “We” is also inclusive in the larger sense, since “we” includes Obama, his team and us as well, “us” being the American people. Is it just me, or did Presidents Clinton and Reagan used “we” more than “I,” and the current President Bush the opposite? That could just be a projection of my assumptions about what constitutes good communications skills, but even that’s revealing, since it shows that I associate “we” with the best political communicators of the past few decades.

In any case, I suspect that this advice won’t be needed, since the fundamentals are so favorable for a Democratic candidate this year. The Obama people are apparently thinking in terms of 1980, when the majority had turned against Carter but weren’t sure about Reagan — the polls were close only a week before the election, but the public shifted at the last moment as they came to see Reagan as a reasonable alternative. And regardless of how close broader public opinion is, Obama’s turnout machine will be formidable to watch. But I have a feeling that a small change in emphasis might make a big difference in how easy it is to persuade people to make the leap to trusting him — “we” is so much more open to others than “I.”


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Another reason for “we” is his stated aim to increase citizen involvement with governance via the application of Internet technology. In that case, “we” really is him and his audience, since his audience can, in effect, be part of his team.

  • I’ve noticed it a while back and contacted the campaign to point the efficiency of a “We” instead of the “I” , i have never received any feedback on it nor obviously has it been applied.