Tired of justifying his slalom toward the center, fed up with endless charges of betrayal, Barack Obama finally rolled his sleeves up and put his foot down. “Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center,” he told a town-hall-ish gathering in Georgia last week. “The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me the notion that this is me trying to look” — he paused, flummoxed, waving his hands about his head — “centrist is not true.”
Look, he seemed to be saying, it’s obvious. I’m the same old beacon of hope, and if you can’t see that, well, you’re just not listening.
That’s the dismissive, frustrated “look.” During Obama’s jet-packed ascent to the Democratic nomination, there have been many others—small cues that word-happy journalists would do well to pay attention to. There’s the concerned and caring “look,” as when he pledged to defend American workers from outsourcing and NAFTA in a February Democratic Debate (“Look, you know, when I go to these plants, I meet people who are proud of their jobs.”); the let’s-everybody-just-calm-down “look,” as when another round of bloodying primary nights came to an end (“Well, look, you know, we just completed a very hard fought contest… I think all our supporters need to just sit back and let things sink in.”); the combative “look,” as when he challenged HRC’s resume back in November (“Well, look, you know, if this a resume contest, then she certainly doesn’t have the strongest resume of the people on the stage.”); the exasperated “look,” on display when he was asked to apologize for a donor’s attack on Hillary (“Look, you know, I can’t be responsible for the statements of every single individual who contributes to our campaign.”); the devil-may-care “look” (“Look, I can’t spend my time worrying about that.”); the self-assured “look” (“Look. You know, what we’ve done has been successful throughout.”); the rhetorical straw-man “look” (“Whoever is the nominee, I think the Democratic Party will say, ‘Look, we’ve got a big fight ahead of us in November, and we are going to be unified to take the country in a different direction.’”); and, of course, there’s the conspiratorial, cool-cat “look” (“Oh, look, you know, when I was a kid, I inhaled. Frequently. That was the point.”).
This one magic word offers such range, such depth, it’s no wonder become Obama’s rhetorical flourish of choice. While promoting Dreams from My Father way back in 2004, the juniorest senator from Illinois was already wielding it with confidence: eight times in one sitting. But perhaps no flavor can top my personal favorite, the getting-real “look,” as when he explained to NPR’s Michele Norris how he can truly “get” the plight of the hurting average American: “Well, look, you know, just listen.”