Experts: Obama's speech will likely echo themes from McCain eulogy

Experts: Obama's speech will likely echo themes from McCain eulogy

If he holds true to form, Barack Obama may not call out President Donald Trump by name in his speech at the University of Illinois today, experts say.

But it will be hard not to hear what the former president says as a critique, given the uproar in Washington, D.C., right now, says communication Professor John Murphy, a specialist on presidential rhetoric and campaign speeches.

National media reported Thursday that Obama won't hold back as he kicks off a campaign push for the fall midterm elections with a message that draws sharp contrasts with Trump. The former president plans to campaign for Democratic candidates in California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, reports said.

Murphy said he would be "shocked if he came out in an all-out attack. That is not his style. It would mark a big shift."

"I suspect he'll set a framework here and be more aggressive elsewhere," he said.

Most of Obama's speeches since leaving the White House, and during his last year as president, have focused on the need to practice civility, protect democracy and free speech, Murphy said.

His communications director said last week the speech would focus on the need for Americans to reject the "rising strain of authoritarian politics and policies," to be engaged in democracy and, most of all, to vote.

Murphy expects Obama to talk about "what makes for good public deliberation and how we should talk to each other." It's a theme Obama has sounded since the beginning of his presidency, Murphy said, "how to talk across differences and the tribal politics we've developed."

He will highlight figures who can talk across party lines, who are able to cooperate and "deliberate and disagree without becoming disagreeable," Murphy predicted.

Murphy and UI political science Professor Brian Gaines expect it to be in the vein of Obama's speech at Sen. John McCain's funeral last weekend.

"I expect him to aim for an inspirational tone emphasizing involvement and engagement. The advance materials and his comments at John McCain's funeral would suggest that he'll paint the current climate as dark, but tell students that they can make a difference," Gaines said.

"The implication will be 'by voting for my party,' but he needn't be extremely partisan. He would be unwise to name Trump much, if at all. He didn't have to mention Trump's name at the McCain funeral for many to see his invocation of 'mean' and 'petty' 'bombast' as a slap at the president. "Ex-presidents rarely pick overt fights with their successors, and even in this 'no-holds-barred' atmosphere of 'resistance' to Trump, I suspect that Obama will be too shrewd to make his speech a personal challenge," Gaines said.

'Ignorance is not a virtue'

He will likely invoke a theme from the 2016 Rutgers commencement, where he used a powerful line picked up widely on social media, Murphy said.

"Let me be as clear as I can be," Obama told the graduates. "In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It's not cool to not know what you're talking about. That's not keeping it real or telling it like it is. That's not challenging political correctness. That's just not knowing what you're talking about."

During a speech honoring Nelson Mandela in July, Obama included a long section on authoritarian movements and the loss of democratic freedoms around the globe, and a rise in the "politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment."

Murphy does expect some pointed remarks about recent developments in Washington, including the op-ed piece in The New York Times by an anonymous senior administration official who claimed to be part of a Republican "resistance" inside the Trump administration.

But as in other speeches, Obama will likely balance any criticisms by urging his audience to listen to all points of view, even if they find them disagreeable — especially for a student audience, with college campuses sometimes shutting down controversial speakers, he said.

He might balance, "'Hey, look out for the right' with 'Hey, we can't shut down free speech, and sometimes the left does that.' He's always trying to balance those two things," Murphy said.

Obama has speechwriters but is heavily involved in drafting and editing his remarks, Murphy said.

"He likes language and enjoys it," he said.

His speeches are "remarkably consistent" about the need to be civil and talk across the political divide, with a heavy emphasis on facts and reason, Murphy said.

One thing that clearly disturbed him about his presidency was attempts by political opponents to make arguments "that he thought weren't true," such as those who denied climate change, he said.

He clearly believes that "we need to have a common basis of reality that, yes, the temperature is increasing, that it becomes really hard to find solutions if you can't agree on what reality is."

Listen for Illini shoutout

If he follows past form, Obama will also likely bring up former Illinois Sen. Paul Douglas, the inspiration for the ethics-in-government award Obama will also be receiving today from the UI Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Douglas is an "interesting figure," Murphy said, a University of Chicago economics professor who enlisted in the Marines at the age of 50 during World War II and ended up as a lieutenant colonel. He served for about three years before being seriously wounded during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, and never regained full use of his left arm, Murphy said.

Douglas started out as a progressive Republican in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt, then became an independent and finally a liberal Democrat and a passionate advocate for civil rights, he said. During his 18 years in the Senate, he also championed social welfare programs, public housing, Medicare, federal aid to education, the environment and labor unions. His reputation for fairness and integrity earned him the nickname of the "conscience of the Senate."

Douglas, who died in 1976 at age 84, also had some UI ties. He was married to Emily Taft, daughter of "Alma Mater" sculptor Lorado Taft. And he spent a year at the Urbana campus in 1916-17 as an economics instructor. He also fought tirelessly to create the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966.

Obama will likely include local and campus references at the start of his speech, as he did at Rutgers — where he said he came to settle the "pork roll vs. Taylor ham question" and mentioned the Scarlet Knights, New Jersey landmarks and research achievements on campus.

"I'd be surprised if Illini basketball didn't come up in one form or another. He's absolutely a huge college basketball fan," Murphy said.