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The President’s speech

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | January 26, 2011

I thought President Obama’s State of the Union address was a very good speech: well written and well-delivered. It remains to be seen, of course, whether it will have its intended effect or indeed any effect; but State of the Union speeches seldom have lasting political effects.

The “prom night” seating arrangement may well have contributed to the power of the speech. In recent years, as one consequence of the growing rivalry between the parties, applause and standing ovations have been getting longer and longer, lengthening the speech and diluting the speaker’s points. Having members of each party sit together only made the tendency worse: they egg each other on. But by mixing the seating arrangements, the audience’s need to prove something to the other side through applause and standing O’s seems to have been diminished.

The speech itself was advertised as being about “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Certainly jobs were under discussion, but so were many other topics – connected, more or less tangentially, to jobs: education, individual and national competitiveness, America’s past and future accomplishments. But  dominating the speech, beginning and ending it, was a call for cooperation – not to help Obama get his agenda passed, but because we are a nation, we are America, and we will only succeed in getting back on our feet if we recognize our connectedness and work together.

In this, the speech bears comparison with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. While they are of course very different — in length, style, and function — they do share a common purpose: to unite two groups that were locked in a lethal struggle by reminding them of all that they shared.

President Obama made that point in one major way: by reminding hearers of all they (that is, we) share as Americans: our technological triumphs in the past. He traced that history through the building of the railroads, the inventions of Edison and the Wright brothers, the building of the interstate highway system, the Apollo project, and, more recently, the development of the Internet. If we regain what we have lost, we will be able to continue this narrative thread, continue the American story of triumph and success. This is a story that all of us share.

So we are united first by gathering together around the metaphorical campfire to hear our story told once again; and secondly, because that story is one of repeated triumphs that we all can be proud of together: Yes, we can.

Comment to “The President’s speech

  1. The two American groups “locked in a lethal struggle” are not Democrats and Republicans, but the financially comfortable and the rest of us. Effectiveness is all that matters now; a pretty speech is useless. Worse than useless. The speech was dangerously inadequate because it contained no mention of gun control and no acknowledgement of all the Americans who are being thrown into the street by foreclosures and dwindling salaries.

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