POTUS and the Pulpit

by Joshua H. Liberatore

In the old days, when they still taught rhetoric in the schools, people learned to be sensitive to the variety of modes of discourse available in our language. Any public speaker worth his salt should be able to manipulate syntax, word choice, tone, pace, and inflection to get the most out of a particular occasion, context, and audience. Apparently, POTUS’s time at Columbia—one of the few universities in the land still insisting on a core liberal arts curriculum—was not squandered. He’s a regular Aristotelian when it comes to tailoring his delivery to the situation and topic at hand. Refreshed from nearly two weeks of reprieve at Martha’s Vineyard and Camp David, POTUS has been busy working a full range of modes this week. It began with a rowdy Labor Day commemoration hosted by the AFL-CIO in Cincinnati:

Now, on Friday, we learned that the economy lost another 216,000 jobs in August. And whenever Americans are losing jobs, that’s simply unacceptable. But for the second straight month, we lost fewer jobs than the month before, and it was the fewest jobs that we had lost in a year. So make no mistake, we’re moving in the right direction. We’re on the road to recovery, Ohio. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

Audience members. Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!

The President. Yes we will. Yes we are.

Audience members. Yes we will! Yes we will! Yes we will!

The President. But, my friends, we still have got a long way to go. We’re not going to rest; we’re not going to let up. Not until workers looking for jobs can find them—good jobs that sustain families and sustain dreams. Not until responsible mortgage owners can stay in their homes. Not until we’ve got a full economic recovery and all Americans have their shot at the American Dream. (September 7, 2009)

Call-and-response aside, anytime POTUS begins speaking directly to an entire state personified, in the standard campaign rally format, we know we’re in for a rambunctious affair, editorially and otherwise. And on Monday, POTUS was clearly enjoying himself, respinning old campaign yarns, raising his voice a little, working the very heartbeat of the unionist crowd, not exactly the Brookings Institution set.

But let me just say a few things about this health care issue. We’ve been fighting for quality, affordable health care for every American for nearly a century, since Teddy Roosevelt. Think about that.

Audience member. Long time.

The President. Long time. [Laughter] The Congress and the country have now been vigorously debating the issue for many months. The debate’s been good, and that’s important because we’ve got to get this right. But every debate at some point comes to an end. At some point, it’s time to decide. At some point, it’s time to act. Ohio, it’s time to act and get this thing done.

The following day, using a different mode, POTUS addressed America’s schoolchildren, an event that caused heaps of reckless speculation and paranoid worry from the usual amnesiacs, ignoring the historical propriety of a platform that both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush used to convey their respective schoolmarmish exhortations (only the technology differed). Sadly, our current Oval Officer thoroughly disappointed both his critics and their hyperactive disciples; POTUS’s message was distinctly uncontroversial and simple: school is important, school is sometimes hard, but school is important, even necessary.

And no matter what you want to do with your life, I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor or a teacher or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to train for it and work for it and learn for it. And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. The future of America depends on you. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future. (September 8, 2009)

For the thousands of fearful parents who yanked their children from classrooms that day, wary of the ripe opportunity POTUS might take to channel liberal propaganda into our nations’ very shrines of critical thinking, there was little to react to in the end. A few Arlington, VA, demonstrators even carried signs reminding POTUS that: “Our children serve God, not the President.” In fact, POTUS wasn’t asking his audience at Wakefield High School, or any other school for that matter, to serve either him or God; he was asking them to serve their country.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents and your skills and your intellect so you can help us old folks solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that, if you quit on school, you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

Education as a patriotic duty is an oddly abstract message of a different sort, comprehensible perhaps to already educated adults, but persuasive to scarcely few teenagers or elementary-school age pupils, I’m afraid. But POTUS persisted with his theme:

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged and you feel like other people have given up on you, don’t ever give up on yourself, because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country. The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

In an age when people and especially the youth have become arguably more self-centered and self-gratifying, since the passing of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” anyway, an easier message to sell would have been: Education will help you get more money and security. Or even: Education will help fulfill you, make you happier. None of these promises is necessarily true, of course, but rhetorically, they are more likely to find sympathy among the iPod and Twitter generation. POTUS, alas, does not go in for the easy sell.

Now, your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books and the equipment and the computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect all of you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down. Don’t let your family down or your country down. Most of all, don’t let yourself down. Make us all proud.

POTUS himself got serious the following night, when he changed modes again in order to address a joint session of Congress. By necessity, his remarks involved a little colorful scolding:

But what we’ve also seen in these last months is the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have towards their own government. Instead of honest debate, we’ve seen scare tactics. Some have dug into unyielding ideological camps that offer no hope of compromise. Too many have used this as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge. And out of this blizzard of charges and countercharges, confusion has reigned. (September 9, 2009)

Frequent use of parallelism:

Well, the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care. Now is the time to deliver on health care.

An invitation for continued input and collaboration:

Now, this is the plan I’m proposing. It’s a plan that incorporates ideas from many of the people in this room tonight, Democrats and Republicans. And I will continue to seek common ground in the weeks ahead. If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen. My door is always open.

Some more scolding:

But know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than to improve it. I won’t stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what’s in this plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now.

An emotional appeal:

And [Ted Kennedy] expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform, “that great unfinished business of our society,” he called it, would finally pass. He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that “it concerns more than material things.” “What we face,” he wrote, “is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.” I’ve thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days: the character of our country. One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom, and our healthy skepticism of government. And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and, yes, sometimes angry debate. That’s our history.

And, finally, a healthy dose of moral philosophy:

You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little, that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn, when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American, when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter, that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.

Much has been made of the uncivil behavior POTUS’s message provoked in the House Chamber that night: the occasional murmurs and boos ( “the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over 10 years, less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars” ); the cynical laughter ( “And while there remain some significant details to be ironed out . . .” ); Rep. Joe Wilson’s now infamous shout of “You Lie!” ( “The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.” ); and at times the raucous applause ( “many in this Chamber, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle, have long insisted that reforming our medical malpractice laws . . .” ). Confronting all the boisterous noise and embarrassing breaches of decorum, POTUS was characteristically sober and unruffled. Still, one is moved to reflect that the hormone-addled suburban adolescents at Wakefield High comprised an altogether better comported and more civilized audience than a massive theater full of elected leaders. But it wasn’t all mindless deference in Arlington either:

Q. Hi, my name is Sean. And my question is, currently 36 countries have universal health coverage, including Iraq and Afghanistan, which have it paid for by the United States. Why can’t the United States have universal health coverage?

The President. Well, I think that’s the question I’ve been asking Congress, because I think we need it. I think we can do it. And I’m going to be making a speech tomorrow night talking about my plan to make sure that everybody has access to affordable health care. Part of what happened is that back in the 1940s and ’50s . . . (September 8, 2009)

It was perhaps the single best, most pointed and frank question POTUS has received on health care all summer, and though the sweeping narrative response was less direct than what young Sean likely wanted, the spark of appreciation in POTUS’s reception was not lost on anyone in the room. POTUS grinned and knew he was back to work.

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One Response to POTUS and the Pulpit

  1. Myra says:

    What an utterly, marvelously concise comparison of the different political ‘genres’ to whom Obama is speaking. You have presented an erudite analysis of his profuse speechmaking in the last week. I listen and am always impressed with his use of language, but have never looked at it through the eyes of different audiences. Thank you for that insight.

    We don’t really pay for universal health coverage for Afganistan, and Iraq, do we?

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