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Obama’s Science Party

October 22, 2010

President Obama swept into office promising, among other things, a science-centered administration.  His current science credibility, like other things, is suffering—Gulf spill inquires find odd data, stem cell research founders, NASA loses the moon.  It was against this specific constellation of problems, and a night sky’s worth of other complaints, that Obama hosted the White House Science Fair this Monday.

While fêting the students, Obama praised science and those that teach and learn it.  But speeches of praise aren’t really about past accomplishments.  Obama commended work done in order to promote his present education reform and inspire confidence in his flagging democratic party.   (If you haven’t heard—there’s an election on).

It’s common enough to think of young people as democrats.  But Obama’s speech holds up these students as the future of the country—a shiny future in stark contrast to his predictions of what Republican policy would bring.  Students like these, Obama says, are what we will get if we keep heading his direction.  If we change paths—well, Obama only suggests it, but pretty much—The Dark Ages.

Here’s how Obama introduces the students:

I just want to recognize all the incredibly talented young men and women who’ve traveled here from every corner of this country to demonstrate their experiments and their inventions. …it’s hard to describe just how impressive these young people are.  Their work –- from cancer therapies to solar-powered cars, water purification systems, robotic wheelchairs -– all of it is a testament to the potential that awaits when we inspire young people to take part in the scientific enterprise:  tackling tough problems; testing new hypotheses; to try, and then to fail, and then to try again until they succeed.

Some things to point out.  These students are active:  they “travel” and “demonstrate” and impress.  They are “tackling” and “testing” and trying—never say die, these ones.  They come from “every corner” of America.  And what are these students working on? Healthcare, green technologies, infrastructure upgrades and, oh look, healthcare again.

Compare that description to how Obama ends the speech—when he’s shifted rhetorically from praising past accomplishment to promoting future work.

this is a difficult time for our country, and it would be easy to grow cynical and wonder if America’s best days are behind us –- especially at a time of economic hardship, and when so many people, from Wall Street to Washington, seem to have failed to take responsibility for moving this country forward for so long.

Here Obama depicts a contrasting world—a potential future, where instead of traveling people “grow cynical”; instead of acting they just “wonder” about the past, where they look for scapegoats and keep the country from moving forward.  Instead of trying hard, they do what’s “easy”. Instead of students that succeed—here, in this alternative world—this world of a different path, vision, direction for the country, people from the centers (not corners) of the country, they fail.

But not the students—these students that stand for Obama’s vision, stand for his education reform, Democrat platform and can-do spirit.  These students:

remind us that this country was not built on greed; it wasn’t buil[t] on reckless risks; it wasn’t buil[t] on short-term thinking; it wasn’t built on shortsighted policies.  It was forged of stronger stuff, by bold men and women who dared to invent something new, or improve something old; who took chances; who crafted and built and who tested our assumptions, and who believed that in America all things are possible.

Just look at how verbs contrast the groups.  The first, negative set reads as a codified list of everything Obama sees wrong with his opponents—from tax-cuts to campaign finance, failure in balancing budgets or conducting foreign affairs. “Short-term” thinking sums up a lot of Obama’s take on GOP strategy, and if you had any doubt this was about politics instead of scientific research—“shortsighted policy” should tip the balance.

The second, positive set of verbs really trumpets what Obama says his Dems did—invent new healthcare, improve infrastructure and environmental safeguards, alter international relations, save the economy, you name it.  Such a better picture, eh? than Obama’s depiction of The Party of No, with run-us-into a ditch policy.

If this starts to sound like an ugly custody battle—with Obama saying mean things about his divorced partner party—in front of the kids, no less—well, it’s been a bad marriage from the start.  For the students, partying at the White House probably eases the bitterness; anyways, kids are resilient, and usually democrats.  The question is—what will the rest of the country hear?  An invitation to a great bash?  A noise-complaint waiting to happen?  Or, like the more standard vision of American science class, will they just sleep though it?

If you want to know more:

  • For a TST review of how Republicans counter praise of progress, check out Doug Cloud’s post “Why Restore” here.
  • Speeches of praise–encomia in classical terms–have millennia of study behind them.  If you have millennia in which to study, you can begin with Gorgias’ “Encomium to Helen” and work forward.
  • If one is more pressed for time, Cynthia Miecznikowski Sheard’s 1996 “The Public Value of Epideictic Rhetoric” presents an overview of scholarship.  Gerald Hauser’s “Aristotle on Epideictic: The Formation of Public Morality” also considers the intersection of epideictic rhetoric and public deliberation.  Recent scholarship includes Cindy Koenig Richards “Inventing Sacagawea:  Public Women and the Transformative Potential of Epideictic Rhetoric” in the January 2009 “Western Journal of Communication”.
  • See, hear and read Obama’s remarks (and see the super science students) here.
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