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Gentle readers, the State of the Union

January 26, 2011

What a long night it’s been!  This author feels she’s been shown all of Avalon and then given eight hundred words to describe it. But upon what should the critical eye dwell?   There is the pomp and glory of a constitutionally-sanctioned, capital address. There is the Honorable Rep. Ryan, champion of the Right, attempting the siege perilous.  (Will the media find him worthy the spot?  If legend serves, prayer is a good start).  And let us not forget a certain lady M—B—. pouring comfort into the ears of faithful supporters, at her own little after-tea party.

Weak willed that this author is, she couldn’t resist the presidential glamor.  The teeming chamber, the listing of names in the Committee to Escort the President—did you catch Speaker Boehner’s trip over Rep. Pelosi’s title of gentlewoman—C-Span chose not to preserve it.  And then there is the speech.  No powerpoint or video or musical guest.  It is a speech in all its simple glory, and your author confesses a soft spot for this ancient kind of political work.

Running over an hour, as it did, rhetorical moments abound. Difficult the decision is, only one shall bear this author’s observations:  Pres. Obama’s use of family.

Family gets the audience’s attention.  One can generally lay claim to some kind—blood, found, urban.  In the abstract, at least, family is a positive concept.  Furthermore, Obama brings up family early, giving it significance by precedence.  Within three minutes Obama reminds his audience:

We are part of the American family. … the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children

So not only are connection and value amplified by order, Obama makes family important enough to link it to the somber weight of the Tucson shooting.

Ah, but here the voices of one’s readers begin to rustle.  Ha, they are thinking—this is nothing but political cant.  Family.  What’s in such a word?—smoke and hot air.

Without doubting the keen minds of our attentive readers, we must beg to differ.

Perhaps well-known language and political scholar George Lakoff can be trusted to make our case.  He argues

The link between family-based morality and politics comes from one of the most common ways we have of conceptualizing what a nation is, namely, as a family.  It is the common, unconscious, and automatic metaphor of the Nation-as-Family that produces contemporary conservatism from Strict Father morality and contemporary liberalism from Nurturant Parent morality.

That is, political parties can be understood as coalescing around two different views of running a family—the strict father view and the nurturing parent one. We could be forgiven for expecting Obama to take up the Nurturant Parent line.  He is a Democrat, beaten at midterms but unbowed.  Nevertheless, his phrasing appears carefully neutral.  Take the whole of the passage mentioned above:

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

The echoes of King’s “I Have a Dream” notwithstanding, this description of family is far from ultra-left Nurturant. For example, Obama uses find to discuss diversity.  Not embrace or respect or acknowledge.  One can find a lot of things in this big country, even things like poverty and disease and murderers.  One can find ugly, criminal and evil things in families, too.

A Strict Father could find plenty of things he didn’t want in his house—and toss them out.  Tough love, you see.  A Nurturant Parent, in Lakoff’s terms, might find some problematic stuff too and have a long chat with the child about the causes and consequences.  Obama’s choice leaves open the interpretation, and just leaving open the door on how we deal with diversity might be a nice concession (for the Right) or an appalling capitulation (to the Left).

Later in the speech Obama remarks that in the wake of further al Qaeda terrorist plots Americans maintained the conviction that “American Muslims are a part of our American family.”  Again, at first glance, strongly progressive, on second-glance,  a neutral statement.  American Muslims are a part—what part?  The welcomed part?  What about the black sheep part?

Neutral, open-ended presentation of family can fit a progressive view or a conservative one. Is Obama signaling a willingness to hear out moderate Republicans?  Or to sell out Democratic hardliners?  This author wishes the president a good new year, but finds herself wondering. Just who does Obama want, sitting round his table?

If you want to know more:

  • Quotes come from the prepared remarks published by ABC, checked against the video at C-SPAN.  (“We are part of the American family @ 4:03).  Ryan’s address is also available on C-Span.  Rep. Bachmann’s address is available on youtube (there’s a Chart!), but at time of publishing, the Teaparty Express page was running a response by Rand Paul (there’s a Sword!).
  • It is George Lakoff’s Moral Politics cited above, without commentary on some of the more problematic aspects of the theory, not the least being issues of gender roles.  Also “urban family” is from Bridget Jones’s Diary (the movie).  Yes, yes, your author knows.  Who the president is actually addressing (or signaling to) in the State of the Union is a question at play in fields of rhetoric, political science and media studies.  For views of the president primarily addressing the public, you can start with Samuel Kernell’s Going Public or Tulis’s The Rhetorical Presidency. Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents and Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha  The President’s Speeches:  Beyond Going Public complicate this view by bringing up the importance of fellow politicians and government officers as audience. Campbell and Jamieson’s Deeds Done in Words assumes both public and political-powers are intended audiences.  And for a rhetorical look at “family” in American politics, there is Dana Cloud’s 1998’s “The Rhetoric of Family Values: Scapegoating, Utopia, and the Privatization of Social Responsibility.”
  • Truly, so much more could be said.  The science-section argument is particularly unsettling, not only because the call for new energy policy is so trite as to be laughable (see Daily Show coverage for example).  But it will take whole posts to break down the argument.  Or especially concise comments.
  • Commentary on the peril of the Opponent’s Address: 20:00 of C-SPAN; NPR; WSJ; NYT.  The consistency of the “it’s a hard speech to give” angle is either reassuring or frightening, depending of one’s level of cynicism about the state of journalism and framing. Here’s the Atlantic’s pre-speech break down of Obama’s and Ryan’s budget-balancing positions.
  • Still looking for links to waste reallocate time? As usual, the NYT’s coverage has pretty graphics for their basic keyword analysis.  PolitiFact checks the evidence behind Obama’s claim here.  Ryan’s checks were forthcoming at time of publication.  And here’s the Huffington Post topping Jon Stewart for State of the Union cynicism-by-video-montage.
  • For a politically-aligned article on the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Camelot, which the author saw but to which has no other connection, click here.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Vic Perry permalink
    January 28, 2011 1:05 pm

    I’m glad you focused on the family, Alexis. I have tried to avoid thinking of the President as “Dad” since my childhood, but then I grew up with Nixon, Ford and Carter. But it never occurred to me until reading your piece that in fact this is kind of bold for Obama to go right for the head of the dinner table. With a Congress unlikely to do anything he might have wanted to do (and who can say with him), moving straight to the father symbolism reminds everyone that he retains iconic power. In mentioning American Muslims as part of our family he essentially repeats GW Bush’s line on them. Pass the potatoes.


    Now, my favorite part of any State of the Union address is watching the assembly (no, can’t call them the “audience”) deciding as individuals belonging to groups whether to clap or to pointedly not clap, whether to stay seated and clap, stand and clap, or stand and clap for a long time. If we can count the claps – a firm offer, say, of four handclaps – it’s a conditional approval at best.

    The hesitant rise to the feet amidst applause shows quick calculations being made. Watch the thighs here to gauge the difficulty of the decision making involved. It is like the World Finals of Simon Says but with trickier rules and with all contestants under continuous threat of television. The biggest heat is of course on the two behind the President, and as a fan I must say I miss Pelosi’s ability to seem to be listening to some second, unheard address while broadcasting her reaction to the official address at all the right moments.

    • Alexis Teagarden permalink*
      February 4, 2011 1:27 pm

      The quick check on audience reception is an appealing part of the State of the Union. I heard one Congress member observe that the seating swap had tempered the number of standing-Os this year. I, and the member, don’t have concrete numbers to back the claim up, though someone, somewhere must, right? For what else serve those video archives of C-Span?


  1. Obama in a Leading Role: Would You (Re-)Nominate Him? « The Silver Tongue

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