Sunday, January 30, 2011

Obama's National Narrative in His State of the Union Address.

The States of the Union address is fascinating to anyone interested in the use of national myths. It is a uniquely presidential genre in which the president is given the opportunity to present his political agenda but also to reconstruct the past in order to forge the future, and thus taking the role of a national historian.
Its annual delivery before Congress is not a requirement of the Constitution – which only asks the president to inform Congress from “time to time” about the “State of the Union”. It is the result of custom and tradition.
My approach here is to consider precisely not what is political in presidential speeches but what is "American".
One of the reasons the State of the Union address has become an institution over the years is that it meets a very American concern – namely the need of a diverse nation for UNITY. After all, George Washington himself already warned against the danger of division, and whether it is sectionalism, slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights, different religions , ethnic diversity or the shooting in Tucson, the fear of division has always haunted American presidents.

That is why the NATION AS A FAMILY used by Barak Obama at the beginning of his speech (“We are part of the American family”, “American Muslims are a part of our American family”) is a very relevant metaphor which has been used since the Revolutionary era (Marienstras). In addition to reassuring American about their quarrels, it also reinforces the ties of the people to the nation by adding an organic component to the original contract around which the nation is built (“the rights enshrined in our Constitution”). (Stuckey).
The nation is thus guaranteed by both the “law of nature” (the American family) and will (the Contract, i.e. the Constitution). What makes the American nation specific is that it is not based on an ethnic group, a language or for its first 100 years on a fixed territory. The American nation is “the first nation to be founded on an idea”, says Obama because the unity of the nation has to be about “something greater” which can never die or disappear, like an idea (“The idea of America endures”).


So what is this “idea of America”? It is in part constituted by the AMERICAN DREAM (the word “dream” is mentioned 12 times) which is about material success or at least the opportunity for material success ( “turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise”). As president Obama reminded his audience, he is himself the incarnation of that dream (“That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight”) along with the Vice president (“a working class kid from Scranton”) and the Speaker of the House (“someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati”).
The success of the nation is understood first and foremost in economic terms:
"America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs”

That is why the goal of the nation is “to make America the best place on Earth to do business.”

This view reveals a distinct feature of the American nation – its unity around the idea of economic prosperity which has existed since its very foundation (after all, the Revolution began with a revolt against the Stamp Act). The term “American Dream” itself was only coined in 1931 but the idea had been there in different forms, including with the Frontier where the adventurous spirit expanded an enterprising nation and its market economy (Stuckey).

It has also had the great advantage of making class or ethnic conflicts less relevant. What may often be seen as a selfish goal in Europe - material wealth - becomes the patriotic duty of all Americans since even president asks the American people to “make America a better place to do business and create jobs
Material success is what makes you a true American – it even has redeeming power and it can even supersede the “rule of law” by making even illegal immigrants worthy of being members of the American family: “let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation”. This is of course a contentious point but it is interesting that the framing of the justification for legalizing undocumented immigrants should not be based on humanitarian grounds, but on material success.


This emphasis on material success is often misunderstood by Europeans who cynically associate it with greed and a-morality (if not immorality), but it is part of a coherent and moral system.
In the American psyche material success is moral because it is the result of hard work and sacrifices (“the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded”). The American Dream “has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.”. Sacrifice is a biblical archetype that was at the center of the Puritan ideal and it has been written into the American civil religion (Bellah).

This is also the way president Obama morally justifies the government cuts needed to reduce the deficit: “Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.”. By definition, sacrifice needs to be hard and difficult and so it will require “painful cuts” (“Already, we have frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees”) and it is also morally right because it is about self-discipline.
This is a return to the traditional Protestant Ethic that considers excess (likened to gluttony) morally wrong and restraint morally good (Max Weber) - a fascinating paradox of American society where more is often better - so Obama’s government cuts have to be about “excess weight” and “excessive spending”. In effect prosperity is supposed to be the result of discipline and hard work which makes it moral. (Lakoff, The Political Mind).
(Think of the self-help books which all have this underlying theme -that redemption and success come from self-discipline or why taking drugs or smoking or drinking is so frown upon).It is also a theme developed by Max Weber pointed out in his "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism".

But of course, the greatest sacrifice for the nation is that of “the men and women who serve” it. (t but here are very few references in this speech to the military and the war other than to illustrate the unity in diversity).


Those people who serve the nation abroad are “heroic” and one of the characteristic of the American hero is that he or she is an ordinary person.
This is why many presidential speeches have been recently punctuated by the illustration of stories of regular Americans who become elevated to role models because of their character, their hard work or their hardship; and who ultimately prevailed (“Robert and Gary Allen who run a small Michigan roofing company”; “Kathy Proctor , mother of two” who “worked in the furniture industry since she was 18 years old”). Just like superheroes of the comics, what makes them heroic is not their powers (the villain also has powers) but their action and character: “From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream.”.

Whereas yesterday’s national heroes were Jefferson’s yeoman farmer or Jackson’s frontiersman, today’s hero is the economic pioneer: the “Edison and Wright brothers” of our time, who founded “Google and Facebook”. Under different forms, it is in fact the same tale of the Frontier Myth – of “centuries of pioneers and immigrants [who] have risked everything to come here.”, and president Obama clearly links today’s challenges to yesterday’s in his “Sputnik moment” remark (“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”). This is not only a reference to Eisenhower’s response to the Soviet’s Space Race but it also embraces Kennedy’s rhetoric of the New Frontier and so Obama links today’s investment in “clean energy” to yesterdays’ funding of “the Apollo Project”. In the same way, he links today’s investments in “high-speed wireless” and “high-speed rail” to yesterday’s “transcontinental railroad” and “interstate highway”. This is typical of a State of the Union Address in that the past is used to talk about the future, thus reassuring Americans about policies by linking them to long held traditions and in this case, to the Frontier myth which appeals to all Americans.


This New Frontier myth is also the general frame behind one of the most important themes of Obama’s State of the Union Address – the reinvention of the self.
In Robert’s words, ‘We reinvented ourselves.’ That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves.”.
This is of course part of one of the most important founding myths of the American nation – the myth of creation and new beginnings, the permanent ‘Novus ordo seclorum’ of the U.S. Great Seal. (Marienstras). In America reinventing oneself is celebrated and extolled.(Lakoff) and Obama’s speech is a case in point. Re-invention is based on change and innovation. (“Our success in this new and changing world will require reform, responsibility, and innovation”; “In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.”). But of course, new beginnings require a change from the past, however painful: “We cannot win the future with a government of the past”.

There are 10 occurrences of the word “future” in Obama’s speech vs. only two of the word “past” (which are negatively connoted).
The American national rhetoric is typically about embracing the future but also about the idea that the future is good because it is free and for everyone to “win” which implies the belief in the control of our destiny. (“Our destiny remains our choice”). And this is also at the core of the “American idea” and the American Dream – “the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny”, and the American nation is indeed a nation of "voluntarists" (Marienstras) but the ideological assumption is therefore that individuals are responsible for their economic fate and that those fates are indicators of talent and character (Stuckey), and personal responsibility is a universal value: “Around the globe, we are standing with those who take responsibility”.

This confidence in the future is reinforced by the many movement and space metaphors. Movement and journey metaphors are very common not only in political discourse but also in everyday discourse (Chilton), but they are particularly relevant in American presidential speech.
In Obama’s state of the Union Address we have a great number of metaphors about MOVING FORWARD which illustrate the idea that action in the present can shape the future which gives meaning to politics :
What comes of this moment is up to us”; “will move forward together”; “I ask Congress to go further”, “Now, the final step – a critical step – in winning”; “we have made great strides over the last two years”; “It is time to move forward as one nation”;” I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal”; “the work ahead of us”; “hopeful, our journey goes forward,
Even if Obama acknowledges that “for many, the change has been painful.” (and “many” means not all), and even if it may seem unfair, (“the rules have been changed in the middle of the game”), change is still mostly viewed positively (“In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection.”) and change is incarnated by “the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information – from high-speed rail to high-speed internet.”.


The beliefs that change is good and that we can control our destiny serve to boost confidence and morale. It also creates a narrative in which the rhetoric of competition becomes coherent and can be easily accepted and embraced. This is a view of the world that is distinctively American: life is a race which ought to be won.
The words “win”, “winning”, “winner” or “race” actually appear 20 times in president Obama’s speech. It starts with kids in school, with the “education race” and the need to win “the race to educate our kids” and very tellingly, the government program of investment in schools is called “Race to the Top”. So for president Obama, not only is competition a good thing, but it should also be celebrated and taught to kids (“we need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”).
This may seem like a more conservative value as it assumes that competition is crucial because it builds discipline and character, but it must be kept in mind that competitive sports are very central to the American way of life anyway and competition is something most Americans are very comfortable with.

Politically, this narrative re frames the role of government into that of empowerment rather than support or redistribution (which would be a socialist view). In other words, if the government takes the role of a parent, it is not the nurturing role of the “nanny state” but the more masculine role of a “builder”, “investor” (“with the help of government loan”) and competitor since the entire world is in a race : after all, China and India could “compete in this new world.”
This is also why the laissez-faire economy is so much at the core of the American narrative, beyond the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans. Government regulation should not be “barriers that stand in the way of success” or “unnecessary burden on businesses” and thus one must “reduce barriers to growth and investment”.
But the Democratic president has to walk a fine line as this is also about his political agenda he endorses the role of protection of the government (his new health-care program is its best illustration) and he won’t hesitate to “create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people.”. But he immediately reassures his audience by linking it to the past – making it an American tradition (“That’s what we’ve done in this country for more than a century.”), and by limiting it to the correcting of abuses by greedy agents in the system (the “credit card companies” or the “health insurance industry” which should be prevented “from exploiting patients”) and to common sense notions widely shared by American people (“speed limits and child labor laws”).


If competition is a natural law, it is also a reality in the world and it thus becomes a patriotic duty not only to do your best, but to be THE best.
We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper.”.
This is why the use of superlatives and comparative is so important – because America has “the largest, most prosperous economy in the world”, because “No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs.”, because it has “the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth”, and because “there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.” the nation can look to the future with confidence.

One of the reasons why this ambitious goal is not so much a cause of anxiety is that the narrative is built upon making past experiences (the Frontier, the American Dream or the “Space Race” - which is assumed to have been won.) the posteriori knowledge of the future (Twings).
It also brings confidence by making the future dependent on the intrinsic qualities of the American people, their unity (“it is because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.”), hard work and discipline (“success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.”) which have built the American character. Finally, it is the enduring belief that the U.S. is the “greatest nation on Earth” and a “light to the world” that makes the prospect of winning the competition for the future within reach. This is of course reminiscent of the biblical archetype of the Manifest Destiny of the Chosen People so prevalent in 19th century narrative to justify western expansion. The narrative is now about the New Frontier, the economic Frontier.


Anonymous said...

Great comments!

Anonymous said...

You address a very interesting subject - American national myths. I have always been interested in the idea (or myth) of American exceptionalism. I wonder what French myths have been the most influential in shaping a French national consciousness and identity, and whether or not they keep reappearing in French political discourse (as the evidently do in American political discourse). The Nation as a Family: I had't thought about this one. Another recent (conservative) myth that might be worth exploring, to see if it has roots in the past: Washington (the city, what it represents), as a big corrupting force in American life: the "evil" city of bureaucrats getting in the way of the modern frontiersmen (think of a Rick Perry) in his quest to build a better future for his family.
Brussels, Belgium