As you know, President Obama gave his annual State of the Union (SOTU) Address last week. It has been a challenge analyzing it for its rhetorical power and metaphorical content. State of the Union speeches are especially difficult to study because they cover such a broad range of topics. Having just studied a brilliant speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. singularly focused on the topic of voting rights, I found it bizarre to study the SOTU this time – by my count, President Obama touched on 72 different topics – everything from Cuba to Russia, Ebola, immigrants, community colleges, black neighborhoods, Wall Street and missions to Mars. Most college students would not get a passing grade from their professors on such a rambling paper – “…and your thesis statement is what exactly?”
Nonetheless, there were some interesting rhetorical and metaphorical techniques used by Obama and his speechwriters. As I have mentioned in previous posts, good speeches contain the three elements of logos (logic), ethos (ethics) and pathos (emotions) as originally discovered by the ancient Greeks. Just briefly, President Obama repeatedly explained the logic of celebrating the improved economic conditions such as lower unemployment rates, higher stock markets, and better health care. He also touched on the ethical imperative to fight terrorists around the world, improve race relations within our police departments, and work harder to help our young people go to college. However, he more commonly appealed to our sense of pathos, describing the fear inspired by recent terrorist attacks, mentioning particular tragic events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri or New York City, and highlighting the struggle of a young couple named Rebekah and Ben, who “bounced back” to improve their lives after the economic recession of 2008.
As for the metaphor usage, I first looked to see if I could find any overarching theme to the speech. As any beginning music student knows, one can usually tell the key signature of a musical piece by looking at its last note (major or minor keys, or different modes, are another story). One can also tell the major theme of a speech by looking at the last paragraph. Here is the last major paragraph of the SOTU speech:
“My fellow Americans, we, too, are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We have laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter together — and let’s start the work right now.” (Applause.)
I think there are several core metaphorical themes present in the last paragraph that create the tone and message for the entire speech. The first is that the United States is a family. It is common in political speeches for the orator to use personification of his or her country, e.g., “America at its strongest.” However, the entire country can also be personified as a family. The second metaphorical theme is that this family has been through some rough times but is doing better now. This implies the metaphor of a journey, a collective journey of the government working for the people. Finally, the story of this family on the journey is told as a metaphor of literature, as a narrative. There are several other sets of metaphors including those of buildings, vision and team sports. In total, President Obama delivered a speech using several complex metaphors to reassure the citizens of the United States as the ability of the country to recover from hard times. Even though he gave powerful evidence that the country recovered amazingly well from the recession in 2008, weak audience response prompted him to quip, “This is good news, people.”
Here are a few examples of conceptual metaphors used in the speech. As always, the quotations are taken directly from the speech; the italics are mine.
We are all familiar with stories – everything from simple bedtime stories we heard as children to complex plots in novels and films. Every story has someone who narrates the events – someone who provides the narrative. In the State of the Union Address, President Obama refers to the economic and social conditions as part of a collective story. He infers that he is the person who will write the story, working together with everyone in the country. He specifically refers to the turning a page to start the speech, and beginning a new chapter as he ends the speech. In the middle he refers to the story of the young couple as our story.
Example: “But tonight, we turn the page. Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. “
Example: “America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.”
Example: “A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter together — and let’s start the work right now.” (Applause.)
There are several intersecting types of personification used in the speech. For one, terrorism is described as a person who can touch the people in the United States. In correlation with this metaphor is another idea that the country is our home, so the geographical boundaries are called our shores.
Example: “We are 15 years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.”
Terrorism is also described as a strong person who can physically move, or drag another individual to a new location or draw a person into a new situation. At the same time, the United States is personified as a person who is standing up and getting stronger.
Example: “Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?”
Example: “Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” (Applause.)
Example: “When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.”
Example: “Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. (Applause.) We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.”
Example: “And it has been your resilience, your effort that has made it possible for our country to emerge stronger.”
Countries can also be personified as people who partner with others to achieve a goal. Others strong countries may be described as being bullies to other countries.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney, one of the best songwriting partnerships in history
Example: “Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.”
Example: “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.” (Applause.)
In a final example, an economic recovery is also personified as someone who can touch people’s lives.
Example: “Today, thanks to a growing economy, the recovery is touching more and more lives.”
Another set of metaphors correlates nicely with the idea of the country as a family. In this case President Obama compares the country of people as being on the same team who must either write fair rules that everyone agrees upon or play by the same rules. Teams must also up their game to be competitive and win the next contest.
Using a strange metaphor, Obama spoke of leveling the playing field. This unusual phrase apparently derives from a problem in early 20th century high school and college football fields. If the school did not have the money to properly create a flat field, the team playing from the high end of the field would have an advantage of being able to run downhill, while the downhill team would have the disadvantage of trying to move the ball uphill. Eventually, teams complained enough that the school literally had to level the playing field. (Thanks to the folks at wordwizard.com for the research on this one!) These days this metaphorical phrase indicates a situation where the rules are fair for all sides in a political or economic competition.
The 1916 Army-Navy football game at the Polo Grounds in New York City
Example: “That’s what middle-class economics is — the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
Example: “But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field.”
Example: “Look, I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype, and that’s why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense.”
Example: “In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules — in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief.”
Example: “And in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to up our game.”
President Obama also used many metaphors of building the country as if it were a construction project. In related metaphors, he also spoke of developing strong policies as if he were anchoring a building in a firm foundation or even on bedrock. He also spoke of parts of buildings such as platforms and pillars that are used to construct a strong, sturdy building; these terms here used to describe Internet systems and strong leadership skills.
Example: “You are the people I was thinking of six years ago today, in the darkest months of the crisis, when I stood on the steps of this Capitol and promised we would rebuild our economy on a new foundation.”
Example: “Some of our bedrock sectors, like our auto industry, are booming.”
Example: “And that’s why the third part of middle-class economics is all about building the most competitive economy anywhere, the place where businesses want to locate and hire.”
Example: “I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community — (applause) — and help folks build the fastest networks so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.”
Example: “We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.”
Example: “But the job is not yet done, and the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.”
Example: “And there’s one last pillar of our leadership, and that’s the example of our values.”
Example: “I said this because I had seen it in my own life, in a nation that gave someone like me a chance; because I grew up in Hawaii, a melting pot of races and customs; because I made Illinois my home — a state of small towns, rich farmland, one of the world’s great cities; a microcosm of the country where Democrats and Republicans and Independents, good people of every ethnicity and every faith, share certain bedrock values.”
Example: “That’s a better politics. That’s how we start rebuilding trust. That’s how we move this country forward. That’s what the American people want. And that’s what they deserve.”
Example: “Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We have laid a new foundation.”
Another powerful set of metaphors used by the president are those of vision. Even though he spoke of the power of stationary buildings, he also spoke of having a vision of the future. He began by speaking of having a better focus on what he wanted to do as president, and then looked beyond the past and present to a more outward vision of goals in the future.
Example: “So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us.”
Example: “Now, this effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed.”
Example: “Third, we’re looking beyond the issues that have consumed us in the past to shape the coming century.”
A view of the majestic Mt. Hood in Oregon
Example: “Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, naïve, that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.”
Example: “If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, I ask you to join me in the work at hand.”
Finally, President Obama talked about the future of the country as if we were all on a journey together. Journey metaphors are very common in political speeches, those in previous State of the Union Addresses or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” In this case, the president used several different types of journey metaphors. These included metaphors from walking: taking steps, stepping up, and making strides; driving: going down the road, keeping the pace and staying ahead of the curve; using boats: propelled forward, or run onto the rocks; using trains: derail dreams and paying full freight; and general metaphors of movement: move on and move forward. As you can see below, President Obama mixes and matches these different metaphors to great effect.
Example: “At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years. (Applause.) This is good news, people.” (Laughter and applause.)
Example: “As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of “small steps.” These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.”
Example: “And as a new generation of veterans comes home, we owe them every opportunity to live the American Dream they helped defend. Already, we’ve made strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care.”
Example: “In Beijing, we made a historic announcement: The United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution. And China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that this year the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”
Example: “Second, to make sure folks keep earning higher wages down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills.” (Applause.)
Example: “Let’s stay ahead of the curve. (Applause.) And I want to work with this Congress to make sure those already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.” (Applause.)
Example: “Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another? Or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?”
The SS Princess May run up on the rocks near Skagway, Alaska in 1910
Example: “Where we too often run onto the rocks is how to pay for these investments. As Americans, we don’t mind paying our fair share of taxes as long as everybody else does, too. But for far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight.”
Example: “As Americans, we cherish our civil liberties, and we need to uphold that commitment if we want maximum cooperation from other countries and industry in our fight against terrorist networks. So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I have not.”
People marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965
Example: “That’s a better politics. That’s how we start rebuilding trust. That’s how we move this country forward.”
In sum, President Obama delivered an hour-long speech covering a wide range of political, economic and international issues. His use of metaphors helped convey his message of the country going through some hard times, but emerging stronger and more hopeful of the future. He told his message as if it were a national story, and used personification of terrorism to increase the emotional response from the audience. He also used personification of the United States to indicate its strength and ability to stand up to adversity. He increased the sense of the people’s involvement with the government by talking of the United States as being on the same sports teams and everyone playing by fair rules. He used metaphors of constructing buildings to describe the work of creating new policies and programs for United States’ citizens. He then used metaphors of vision to describe how he was focusing on the past and present but looking forward to the future. Finally, after laying the foundation and looking beyond, he took us on a journey with several different vehicles. As mentioned, political speeches often use journey metaphors to convey the message of the speaker that the country is not stuck in the past or present but moving forward, putting hard times in the past and looking towards brighter days in the future.
Next time: Another look at Animal Metaphors