President Barack Obama’s First State of the Union: Obfuscatory Rhetoric

–Richard E. Vatz

There are many definitions of good speechifying, but one memorable such definition is the medieval Roman Quintilian’s “A Good Man Speaking Well.” Add to this one of the standard definitions of rhetoric as the competition for agenda and spin, and you have all the criteria you need to evaluate President Obama’s first State of the Union Address: A Good Man Using Obfuscatory Rhetoric.

In terms of elocution, President Obama is one of the three best speakers the American presidency has offered in the last 50 years. Only Presidents Kennedy and Reagan had his exquisite delivery, apparent sincerity and lack of insecurity. The President exhibited all of these qualities in his State of the Union speech (SOU). Informed likeability? He would stop for what passes as self-effacement, such as his warm, smiling caution that he assumes no one thought he supported health care because of its political advantage.

The speech itself, however, avoided major portentous matters pertinent to the state of America. The SOU was mainly about economic policy, and the president had a few concessions to give to Republicans and blue dog Democrats. The President was openly ridiculed – and he responded to the audience incredulity — during his speech for announcing his 3-year spending freeze “next year” due to the current weakness of the economy. This non sequitur was to support putting off a policy the President perceives would hurt Democrats’ running for office in 2010.

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Tax and spend? That is their nature. Health insurance reform, education reform tax cuts for those who are not well-to-do and holding entitlements harmless all belie Presidential efforts to curb the deficit, as do greatly dubious expenditures on the mammothly complex issue of whether humans can or should change climate of the earth. As the President unfairly oversimplified the politics of the question, “I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change…but… the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

President Obama challenged conservatives and Republicans to come up with ideas for health care, implying that they remain the population and party of “no.” No mention was made of the conservative consensus for tort reform which could significantly affect the costs of health care or the most undiscussed newly expensive Democratic health care reform component of mental health care parity.

The President, despite the political sea change caused by The Massachusetts Miracle of Scott Brown’s tortoise-hare victory over the over-vacationing Democrat Martha Coakley, seemed unwilling to change his priorities. New Virginia Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s Republican response to the SOU effectively made the overriding argument that, as Ronald Reagan said, government isn’t the solution, it is the problem.

Most disappointing in President Obama’s SOU was the short-shrift he gave to the foreign policy challenges which threaten the United States. He claimed generally that under his administration “we have renewed our focus on the terrorists who threaten our nation.” There was, however, no discussion of trying terrorists in the United States, or giving them Constitutional protections which hurt our ability to gather intelligence about terrorist operations. Moreover, there were brief but unilluminating mentions of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear weapon adventurism. Can there be more critical issues relating to the state of the union than nuclear proliferation? In fleeting references to North Korea and Iran President Obama promised that they face isolation and unspecified “consequences.”

President Barack Obama has given a most disappointing State of the Union Address that obfuscates the real and serious problems facing our country by not addressing them adequately or accurately. Elocution-wise, however, he is the best.

Students of speech: substance matters even when hidden by elocutionary brilliance.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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