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Obama’s Sunday-Night Pajama-Drama: The End of Osama-Trauma

May 3, 2011

We’re going to be talking about Osama bin Laden’s death for a while. Obama’s speech? Probably not.

Just in case you missed President Obama’s remarks on the death of Osama bin Laden, here is a critical summary (which I call a “crummary”™):

Osama bin Laden: bad, dead.
9/11: bad, seared in our memory.
Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: not over, not against Islam.
Americans: good, strong.
United States military: good, strong.
President Obama: aware of the last eleven words of the Pledge of Allegiance.

OK, fine, it was a little bit more complex than that. My point is, aside from the news about bin Laden’s death, Obama’s speech didn’t tell us anything new. It was good, not great. Here’s my take on what was worth noticing:

1. “The War on Terror” was missing in action.

President Obama didn’t use the phrase “War on Terror” once during his address. There were several places where the phrase would have fit, but alternatives were used:

The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda

…Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort

… that our war is not against Islam…

…The American people did not choose this fightIt came to our shores, and started with the senseless slaughter of our citizens.

What President Bush surely would have called “The War on Terror” with a capital ©, Obama refers to as “our effort to defeat al Qaeda,” “our effort,” “our war,” “this fight,” and “it.” This reflects Obama’s longstanding habit of not using the phrase “war on terror,” a phrase that is sort of vague and, frankly, unrealistic. I mean, when is the last time you heard of someone defeating an abstract concept through military action?

One suggested alternative to “War on Terror” is “Overseas Contingency Operation.” But this phrase is remarkable in its turgidity (seriously, I can’t get through “Overseas Contingency Operation” without feeling sleepy). Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t show up either.

2. Obama did some smart things with attribution.

I was wondering how and where President Bush would show up in Obama’s speech, and I think Obama knew exactly where to bring him in:

…we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam.  I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam.  Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.  Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own.  So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.

I do remember George W. Bush saying this, but I don’t remember him saying it particularly often. The distinction between Islam and al Qaeda is vital, though, both from a foreign policy perspective (we need the cooperation of Muslim allies to do well in Afghanistan and Iraq) and a moral perspective (religious freedom is one of the foundations of our democracy).

Obama is smart to remind us that Bush, too, took this position. After all, no one I’ve talked to is convinced that Bush was a secret Muslim, but Obama has, unfairly, had to address confusion about his religious affiliation.

3. Obama ended by quoting the Pledge of Allegiance, a text most Americans have spoken thousands of times.

Intertextuality, or the reuse of “bits of text,” is something we do all the time. We’re always repeating phrases and pieces of text that we heard somewhere or another. In his remarks on bin Laden, Obama ended by quoting part of the Pledge of Allegiance:

Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

He’s done this sort of thing before. In his 2008 speech on race in America, Obama opened by quoting the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” But drawing on the pledge feels different. It’s more commonplace, somehow, possibly because many in his audience have said it literally thousands of times.

It’s also worth noting that Obama’s speech on race began with the preamble quote, which became an important part of his argument. The bin Laden speech ends with the pledge excerpt, making it seem more tacked on.

4. Obama’s delivery left something to be desired.

This is my most subjective observation. I’m not a huge fan of Obama’s speaking style (I think it’s a bit halting and choppy), but his delivery on Sunday night seemed especially stilted—even robotic. Although, in all fairness, it’s hard to pronounce Abbotabad correctly while under pressure.

If you want to know more:

  • I was underwhelmed by Obama’s speech, but then again great speeches aren’t always appreciated in their time. For example, reactions to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address were mixed. Nevertheless, I don’t think these remarks at all compare to Obama’s 2004 DNC address, his “A More Perfect Union” speech, or his victory speech from 2008. Prove me wrong, history. Prove. Me. Wrong.
  • If I were a broadcast journalist, I would have been incredibly nervous about accidentally mixing up “Obama” and “Osama.” If I were a broadcast journalist working for Fox, I would have just gone with it.
  • Matt Zebrowski and I conferenced immediately after Obama’s speech. Given our strange Sarah Palin fixation, we were eager to know what she had to say. Her inability to somehow spin the death of bin Laden into a criticism of Obama (she had to settle for praising our troops) is powerful evidence that this action reflects positively on Obama.
  • Obama’s care in differentiating a war on al Qaeda from a war on Islam is a nice example of what Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca called the “breaking of links,” an argumentative move in which one argues that two things are separate and should remain that way.
  • My definition of intertextuality draws on Barbara Johnstone’s Discourse Analysis.
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