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Economy and Education: Obama’s Speech Is Brought to You by the Letter “E”

December 10, 2010

Image by Kate Holterhoff

Like many episodes of Sesame Street, Obama’s administration is brought to you by the letter “e.” The “e” usually stands for education. After all, Obama is the first president to have a science fair at the White House, and he often gives speeches at educational institutions. So it makes sense that his speech at Forsyth Technical Community College this past Monday was as much about education as it was about its headlining topic—the economy.

In fact, we can identify patterns in Obama’s presidential speeches the farther we get into his term—now at the ripe old age of twenty-three months. The wheel can only be invented so many times. But despite Obama’s reputation for rhetorical glitz and the contemporary mindset that something has to be new to be worthwhile, you can still persuade people of something by beating them over the head with it.

I’ve drawn on Kenneth Burke’s work before, focusing on how Obama tries to identify himself with the American people and great presidential communicators. This time I’m drawing on a different aspect of Burke’s work: the persuasiveness of repetition. As Burke writes in A Rhetoric of Motives:

[O]ften we must think of rhetoric not in terms of some one particular address, but as a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reënforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill.

Obama would probably argue that his emphasis on education (and the economy too) is far from trivial or dull. But he can’t argue that it isn’t “daily reënforcement.” Obama tells the Forsyth crowd:

[C]ourses in machine shop and car mechanics have now broadened to degrees in mechanical engineering technology and nanotechnology and biotechnology. And meanwhile, your unique partnerships that you’re building with advanced manufacturing and biotechnology firms will ensure that the businesses of the future locate here, they come here, they stay here, they hire right here in Winston-Salem.

You’re probably wondering what Obama can possibly be reinforcing here when he’s pointing out the changes in Forsyth’s courses in the past fifty years and talking about the community college’s “unique partnerships” with local firms. But if you look beyond the content—and beyond this speech—you’ll see that Obama is using the economy to make the same argument about education over and over again:

All investments are economic by nature.

Education is an investment.

Therefore, education is economic by nature.

This happens not just within this speech, but elsewhere in Obama’s growing presidential archive. This is how he can still emphasize education in a speech that begins by talking about North Carolina’s economic ups and downs in the past couple years and ends with the declaration that we can make this another “American century.”

With Obama in the White House, it can’t be coincidence that “e” is the most common letter in the English language, can it?

If you want to know more:

  • For resources on Burke, check out the links for my previous post about Burke and Obama here.
  • You can read the official transcript of Obama’s remarks here.
  • You can watch the official video here.
  • You can watch a four-minute explanation of Obama and Republicans’ compromise on tax cuts, brought to you by Austan Goolsbee, the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, here.
  • The letter “e” makes an appearance on Sesame Street.

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