26 January 2011

The State of our Oratory is... well... umm...

2011 SOTU as a Wordle text cloud
A few noteworthy items from last night's speech and response.  OK, responses.

First, the speech that really matters - President Obama gave a decent speech, albeit a forgettable one from a rhetorical perspective.  I was impressed that he focused so much on research, science, math, and technology. The bit about celebrating the winner of the science fair as much as you celebrate the winner of the Super Bowl was the kind of rhetorical salvo that should send warm fuzzies to my science advocate pals.    Overall it was an appeal to our better angels, something America needs at this moment.  

However the catchphrase that was intended to weave the speech together - "win the future" - fell just a bit flat to me.  It seems the phrase was designed to underscore the emphasis on competitiveness you could find throughout the speech, and it may have been designed to tap into a more modern version of the "manifest destiny" idea  that is embedded in America's cultural DNA.   People I know on Twitter explain that it's a reference with "digital age" and gaming undertones, and it's somewhat clear that the people who wrote this speech have a foot securely planted in that world.  As a piece of rhetoric I think it tries to be bold but is just slightly too vague to be useful. 

Overall the speech had all of the entirely predictable elements you find in the modern SOTU - the "we're #1," the laundry-listish recitation of policies, the references to the VIP's sitting next to the First Lady, the shout-out to our military, and the request for God's blessings. 

But let's also remember that the SOTU has its limitations.  It's nearly impossible to get into real specifics, even when the speech runs over an hour.  This speech is perhaps more about ceremony today than it may have been at one time.  So the bits that sound like specifics may or may not be.  For example, the President gave strong emphasis to clean energy and proposed what sounded like an ambitious renewable energy portfolio standard for... some year far enough in the future that he won't really have to worry about it. But in the list of energy sources he included something called "clean coal."  Coal is not clean and it's not renewable.  "Clean coal technology" is more a term of art than an actual, tangible thing.  Yet there it was.  So what is the portfolio standard?  Clean? Renewable? Or some new definition that gives the appearance of success without really doing anything meaningful?  Only time will tell, and it will likely be left to the Department of Energy and the EPA to clarify.  And it's no mistake that Carol Browner's departure was announced BEFORE the speech.  Energy companies no doubt saw that as an olive branch to help deal with the thorns of the rhetoric presented against them in the speech. 

I think the responses demonstrate how truly difficult it is to sit in a room by yourself and read off of a teleprompter and still seem engaging.  Seriously, it's not easy.  The President just gave this huge rhetorical address with the eyes of the world upon him, and you're confined to a small studio with a camera.  Do you try to sound conversational, like a "fireside chat?"  Do you try to be presidential, to match the gravitas of the President?  In this situation you really can't win because you're compared with perhaps the greatest orator of our generation on a stage designed to amplify his presence.   

I won't hide my politics - I'm a Kennedy Democrat.  But trying to take my politics out of the equation (probably impossible to do) I think the responses absolutely sucked.  They just did.  Congressman Ryan's speech was a focus group-driven list of phrases without a coherent rhetorical center.  But it was the format that really killed the speech. He had a limited amount of time to cram in a lot of things.  He spoke too quickly, and the tone of his voice and the expression on his face belied his words.  (You don't smile blankly when you're talking about a colleague who was shot in the head two weeks ago.) This created a fundamental disconnect for viewers - Ryan looked like he either didn't mean what he said, or he was simply reading through a text by rote.   (Oh, and I found the "substance"of the remarks to be misleading at best.)

Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann's presentation - I think that's a far more appropriate term than "speech" -  looked like a Ross Perot infomercial, and fell short of even Congressman Ryan's address in terms of delivering substance.  The information she placed in charts - real speeches don't have props - was misleading and lacked context.   Of course, this wasn't the first presentation from a Member of Congress to play up some data and ignore other facts, but it seemed the "success" of the presentation relied on the ignorance of its audience.  That's never a good thing to do.  The repeated use of the term "Obamacare" - clearly designed to serve as a pejorative - was beneath the the moment.   And again, difficulties with the format led to the most obvious issue that detracted from the entire presentation.  The teleprompter was placed off to the side, and the speaker looked directly at it (and not the camera) for the entire address.  Combine this with the too-frequent "double-guns" pointing gesture and the result was a distracting and difficult experience for the viewer.  Finally, the iconic picture of the Iwo Jima soldiers raising the American flag at the end was superfluous, even overreaching as a rhetorical device - it lacked relevance to the remarks, and seemed to be forced, and frankly, pandering.   

Overall the night was a solid win for the President - he gave a decent speech (snap reaction to it was overwhelmingly positive) and the GOP demonstrated they couldn't overcome the complexities of the medium to deliver a coherent message in response. Of course, time will tell if any of it has any substantive impact, but at least beltway pundits (and rhetoric geeks like me) have something to write about for a couple of days.

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