Barack Obama's election night victory speech was "a very good night for the English language," says the New Yorker. "A movement in American politics hostile to the possession and the possibility of words — it had repeatedly disparaged Barack Obama as 'just a person of words' — was not only defeated but embarrassed by a victory speech eloquent in echo, allusion, and counterpoint." There were allusions to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, points out the New Yorker:
And then he moved through time, using the epic novelist’s trick of a heroine as old as the century. Ann Nixon Cooper, at the age of a hundred and six, had voted in Atlanta. Obama paused to imagine all that she had seen: woman suffrage, the “despair in the dust bowl, and Depression across the land”; the start of the Second World War, when “bombs fell on our harbor” (Pearl Harbor became simply “our harbor” ); and “the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma.” At the end of each witnessed decade, Obama appended a quiet “Yes we can,” extraordinarily moving in its sobriety.
Besides Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the speech’s other founder. The allusions were deeper, and quieter, than the explicit reference to King’s famous phrase about how “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (Obama said that we will put our hands “on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”) When the President-elect warned that the road will be long, and that “we may not get there in one year or even one term, but America . . . I promise you—we as a people will get there,” the word “promise” surely activated, however unconsciously, the rich narrative of exodus that found a culminating expression in King’s last speech, in Memphis: “And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.”
In the Memphis speech, King says that if God asked him which epoch he would like to inhabit he would want to go to Egypt in bondage, but also to Europe during the Reformation, and America when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Borrowing, perhaps, from King’s epic radiations, Obama had Ann Nixon Cooper move through her American decades, then burst into world history:
"A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote."
The language is plain but musical: the repeated “down” and the repeated “touched” enact the connection they describe. And then, at the end, as Obama returned once more to the Union (“that out of many, we are one”) and the promised land (“if our children should live to see the next century”), his language again invoked Lincoln (“and where we are met with cynicism and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t”—that archaic “are met with” taking us back, allusively, to the Gettysburg Address): “We are met on a great battlefield of that war.”