Obama’s Tucson speech turned the conversation from blame and blood libel to make us look through the eyes of a little girl. The rhetorical device he used might look familiar; it’s the same that expressed MLK’s dream.
I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us—we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.
Optatio (op-TOT-io), the wish. From the Latin, meaning “wish.”
According to Gideon Burton, the Greek word for the wishing figure, oeonismus, referred to the act of divining the future by watching the flight of birds. How appropriate to eulogize the hopes of a little girl.
Nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green had been elected to the student council and was off to see her congresswoman “undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted,” Obama said. He then switched the tense from the past to the future, where dialog gathers hope and maybe even gets some work done.
The optatio makes an ideal figure for this switch, because by stating a wish it allows a speaker to paint the future in deeply personal terms. Obama takes the figure and shines it in the glow of a hopeful little girl.
Martin Luther King based his whole “I Have a Dream” speech on the optatio and made us live up to his higher expectations. Use it when you have something noble and important to say.
Figaro has argued since Obama got elected that the president lacks “virtue,” the rhetorical skill of making an audience believe the speaker shares the audience’s values. In this speech—his best so far as president—he showed great virtue indeed.