Monday, September 12, 2011

President Obama's Job Speech and the Building of Symbolic Consensus.

Last week, President Obama laid out his plan to boost the economy and create jobs. The president’s challenge was to find a way to communicate his message to variety of audiences, the House Republicans, the House Democrats, the Independents, the market, the American people, and even the rest of the world (Michael Shear of the NYTimes).

As you can see in the word frequency map below (which excludes grammatical words), the speech indeed focused on jobs, America, work, business, tax, etc...

Beyond his pragmatic bipartisan conciliation, his style was definitely fiery and combative, setting the tone of his reelection campaign.

As in all presidential discourse, the main subject pronoun - which is not apparant in the map -is the inclusive first plural “WE” (94 occurences in all) but in this speech, “WE” is not the usual presidential “WE” (the administration), it refers rather mostly to “Washington”, that is to say both the legislative and executive branch and only occasionally to the American people. This shows that the main target of his speech is indeed Congress and the rest of the audience (the American people) stands mostly as witnesses to the arguments used by the president in his dialogue with the legislative branch.

As the same time, like any other US president, Obama tries to win the hearts of the American people by framing his argument as one that naturally fits into the tradition of the national narrative.

The tenets of this national narrative are the founding principles of justice, equal opportunity and prosperity ("a country where everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share / fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning / If you did the right thing, you could make it.  Anybody could make it in America.") from the traditional social-contract perspective. The metaphor of “the compact” is a powerful metaphor about how Americans see the relation of individuals with their government - it combines the puritan idea of the covenant with the social contract political theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. According to Obama, the problem is the erosion of this original compact which promised that “hard work and responsibility paid off”. This idea that hard work is rewarded by material success is also a combination of protestant ethos (see Max Weber) and the classical liberal economy of Adam Smith.

This classical liberal view is also reinforced by a vision that life is a race ("America should be in a race to the top.  And I believe we can win that race"), which has its roots in 19th century social Darwinism. Interestingly enough, at the same, Obama includes unions’ bargaining rights as what it means to be at the top while making sure to reject class struggle ("This isn’t class warfare." ) thus fending off criticism of (European) socialism.
Overall the speech tries to balance the American faith in the individual by using the myth of the pioneer character ("the strong rugged, self-reliant individualist") with the belief in community ("we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation"), thus combining the myth of the Wild West and the myth of the (civilized) Town. At the same time, the speech appeals to conservatives by striking a balance between personal and collective responsibility ("a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another".)

To make his argument more compelling, Obama also invokes heroic presidential figures of the past (in this case, Lincoln and Kennedy) and consensual historical accomplishment ("the Transcontinental Railroad")  as well as mythic times ("the post-WWII GI Bills") when America was strong and sure of herself. The appeal to the past is a classic of presidential speech - it makes proposed policies part of the great American tradition and give the American people a sense of continuity. There is also an underlying tone of nostalgia ("rebuilding America") which in period of vulnerability can be politically powerful.

This is again something all U.S presidents do, but this particular speech may be more in the tradition of democratic than republican ideology for two reasons – first because it stresses the need for national community and a sense of togetherness ("No single individual built America on their own . .../...  We built it together"), and second because it plays out well the opposition between big corporations ("corporate profits") and small businesses.

In the end, Obama returns to the consensus of the American founding principle of exceptionalism, another legacy of the Puritan era ("the United States of America remains the greatest nation on Earth"), believing in the uniqueness of the American character ("But we are Americans.  We are tougher than the times we live in, and we are bigger than our politics have been") and the faith not only in the future but in optimism itself (President Kennedy once said, “Our problems are man-made –- therefore they can be solved by man.  And man can be as big as he wants.”) which is part of the American creed.

From a strictly symbolic perspective, President Obama’s job speech is well crafted - it strikes a nice balance between conservative and liberal values, reality and optimism, past and present. It is built upon the essential characteristics of the American spirit. It remains to be seen whether his economic proposals and his plan reflects well enough this symbolic building of consensus and twill be passed by the Republican-majority House.

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