Grading Obama’s State of the Union address: was it well-written?

Obama was Obama in his 2014 State of the Union address.

He set an agenda that will help staunch the bleeding from more than 30 years of class warfare by the wealthy on the rest of us. But that’s all it will do—staunch the bleeding.

As usual, the President didn’t go far enough. He asked for tax reform that would close loopholes for businesses, but not for any increase in taxes for the wealthy. He gets on the universal pre-K bandwagon, but he doesn’t say anything about more teachers and returning government support of public schools and universities to pre-Reagan levels.  He raises the minimum wage for employees of government contractors for new contracts, but only to a paltry $10.10.

Did anyone expect anything else from Obama, who always talks progressive and acts centrist? Except, of course, in matters involving national security, in which he is a neo-con’s dream, even if they won’t admit it.

As far as his boldness in using executive orders to accomplish what Congress in unwilling to do, many will share my perceptions that it’s about time and he could have done more.

From the standpoint of writing, the speech was fascinating. He opened by cataloguing hypothetical vignettes of a country on the right track. He didn’t bother to introduce the subject, but went straight to these imagined mini case histories, following Horace’s dictum to “begin in the middle” (in media res).

In presenting these vignettes, Obama used the same sentence structure in each case. Repetition of a phrase, rhythm or sentence structure to start each of a series of sentences is one of the most well-used and successful rhetorical devices in speeches (and poetry). Repeating “I have a dream…” gave Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech of that name its eternal power. The accumulation of the same phrases—or the same sentence rhythm in the case of Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address—mesmerizes people. People also delight in the musicality of the repetition, as the speech suddenly turns into a variation on theme.

These two techniques—opening with an anecdote and using repetition—are standard among professional speechwriters. I teach both techniques to young writers who work for me or in seminars.

All very clever, but it doesn’t make it a great speech. To attain the immortality of Dr. King would require vivid images, and in almost every case, the President and his speechwriters settled for the most general statement one could imagine. Instead of creating a vivid image, they merely made points.

For example, Obama starts with “Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades.”  “Spent extra time” is very general. Why not, “spent extra time to explain the Electoral College”?

Next sentence: “An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years.” The overly general “flipped on the lights in her tech startup” could be “hired 10 people to work for her automation software company,” which is still general but more specific than “her tech startup.”

Next sentence: “An autoworker fine-tuned some of the best, most fuel-efficient cars in the world, and did his part to help America wean itself off foreign oil.”  The speechwriters were reaching for the broadest of generalities with “fine-tuned.” Are they so lazy that they can’t find an article on the Internet about jobs in auto factories?  It took me a few minutes to find the information that led to this alternative: “programmed an automated machine that fabricated an engine part.”

And on and on he went, piling generality on top of generality: “A farmer prepares for the spring…” Finally his fifth example paints a picture, creating what Carson McCullers called piquancy: “A rural doctor gave a young child the first prescription to treat asthma that his mother could afford.” But then he turns general again when he talks of a father on a bus ride home from work “dreaming big dreams for his son…”

Typically, a variation on theme in poetry or a speech ends with the longest variation, as a way to unwind, change subjects or convey a sense of completion. It is only in the last long variation of Obama’s address that he presents a vivid image: “And in tight-knit communities across America, fathers and mothers will tuck in their kids, put an arm around their spouse, remember fallen comrades, and give thanks for being home from a war that, after twelve long years, is finally coming to an end.” Note that Obama saves the creativity for the part in which he tells a half-truth: “the war is coming to an end,” also means that the war is not yet over. I remember that the Viet War was “coming to an end” for about half a decade.

The remainder of the President’s address is quite conventional. Like every State of the Union since Ronald Reagan, Obama peppers the speech with mentions of people who serve as symbols for successful or failed policies. Some examples:

  • “Andra Rush opened up a manufacturing firm in Detroit. She knew that Ford needed parts for the best-selling truck in America…”
  • “Misty DeMars is a mother of two young boys. She’d been steadily employed since she was a teenager. She put herself through college. She’d never collected unemployment benefits. In May, she and her husband used their life savings to buy their first home. A week later, budget cuts claimed the job she loved. Last month, when their unemployment insurance was cut off…”
  • “Estiven Rodriguez couldn’t speak a word of English when he moved to New York City at age nine. But last month, thanks to the support of great teachers and an innovative tutoring program, he led a march of his classmates – through a crowd of cheering parents and neighbors – from their high school to the post office, where they mailed off their college applications.”

Andra, Misty, Estiven and the others mentioned serve in place of facts and figures.

I call this rhetorical device “arguing by anecdote.” Writers love it, especially when they have the facts against them, as research by Daniel Kahneman and others demonstrates that most people will trust one anecdote over substantial facts and figures that prove the opposite, especially when the anecdote supports what they already believe.

Reagan was the first President to mention real people in anecdotes in the State of the Union, often having the person there to receive a brief spotlight and applause.  These in-person call-outs always lend an element of sentimentality to the address and every State of the Union since Reagan has had them. It would be refreshing to hear a State of a Union without the ritual of the in-person call-outs. Obama had three in the 2014 State of the Union.

At least Obama makes good use of his arguments by anecdote because in every case, the anecdote is used to make a point that is based in reality, unlike Reagan, whose anecdotes too often supported untrue statements or gave a distorted impression of what the facts really were.

While it dominated the news for the 24 hours leading up to the speech and the 24 hours after it, Obama’s speech will not be remembered.  State of the Union addresses rarely are, probably because the President has to talk about every aspect of his agenda—to stuff 10 pounds of ideas into the proverbial five-pound bag.


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