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Obama Reviews Thanksgiving History, or Are You Ready for Some Football

November 26, 2010

In his Thanksgiving-week’s weekly address, Pres. Obama toasted the American spirit. And, like the Lions’ halftime lead, it threw me for a curve.

Obama said America was a great land; Americans are great people. That I expected. Even the evidence Obama provided to support the great claim was standard fare:

Against tough odds, we are a people who endure – who explored and settled a vast and untamed continent; who built a powerful economy and stood against tyranny in all its forms; who marched and fought for equality, and connected a globe with our own science and imagination.

If that were my AP US History class, here’s what my notes would have been:

Reasons Why America Endured
  1. Manifest Destiny *
  2. Protestant Work Ethic *
  3. WWII “we will gain the inevitable triumph” *
  4. Civil rights
  5. Facebook

Actually, I’m lying. I hadn’t memorized the last line in FDR’s Pearl Harbor address. Also, yes, my high school degree is older than Facebook. But does anyone remember what AIM even means?

See what I starred—the first three historical examples? These are the three I would have put in my AP essay, the three most resonant with historical depth and gloss. These three are all about “destiny,” what is “inevitable,” what is given us by God.

But Obama’s next line is “None of that progress was predestined.” Are you looking like the 2nd-half Lions (i.e., confused)? I was. Even if you think that destiny is a problematic or passé belief, it’s still unusual to hear a political leader outright deny America’s providence. Obama’s next point “None of it came easily” is much easier to accept. In fact, it’s so easy to accept, we have to wonder, why undercut the assumption of destiny, of God-given success and victory?  Why not just say—hey we did all this stuff in the past; it was hard, but we worked harder?

Urgency is an important part of persuasion—the audience needs to understand, better yet feel, the pressing need for the speech and its proposed action. Otherwise, why are we listening? And yes, lots of us are feeling the stress of a troubled economy, the strain of two battlefronts, the struggle of political gridlock. But those problems are also long-standing and familiar. And familiarity can diminish our collective sense of urgency.

But Obama is pushing for new solutions, outlooks, and political alignments. He needs the American people looking for them too, not sitting back assuming everything will work out, eventually. Obama needs the same pressure that swept midterm elections to keep pushing on Congress, to keep legislators in action. But waves, to turn to the media’s favored midterm description, not only flow, they also ebb.

Obama needs to keep the sense of urgency running through the country, while electioneering coverage dissipates, when the ballot-motivation disappears, with a lame duck then winter-breaking Congress. So Obama calls to mind not what America was destined to do, but rather what Americans did. He argues history was not a given, but a choice. And he reminds us that action and choice are what will determine our future, regardless how promising we believe it to be.

Or, as the Lions vividly demonstrated, a lead at half-time doesn’t promise anything but another half.

If you want to know more:

  • I’m drawing on the theoretical concept of a “rhetorical situation” here, substituting the more common (albeit less nuanced) term “urgency” for exigency.  But a more theoretically-grounded and analytically-rich approach to Obama’s persuasive moves could start with Lloyd Bitzer’s canonical article “The Rhetorical Situation” and/or Richard Vatz’s response “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.”
  • If you, like me, don’t have memorized the entirety of FDR’s “Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation,” you can find a transcript and video here.
  • Watch the Detroit Lions fall apart here.
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