The president’s main topic was economic regulation and his role model was Roosevelt, not Franklin Delano but Theodore, the Progressive Republican president who attacked big business and asked for more government regulation.
President Obama symbolically gave his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, the small town where Theodore Roosevelt gave his New Nationalism speech over a hundred years ago.
Invoking a Republican president was a clever move - it adds credibility to his claim of rising above partisan politics. (The Economist).
The most interesting part, however, was not the symbolic historical context but the crafting of the speech itself.
First, it conveyed a classic opposition between BIG (banks, factories, monopolies) and SMALL (farmers, children, innocent, hard-working Americans, women / unemployed / elderly / people with disabilities), and between the FEW (wealthy, greed, 1%) and the MANY (the middle-class). Such a systematic opposition would not fly well in American discourse for its smacks of class warfare - which the president denied doing - if it was not framed in a way that can be accepted by an American audience. So at the core of the president’s speech lie some distinct traditional American core beliefs: the American Dream, American Exceptionalism and a strong sense of community spirit.
In order to achieve this successfully, the speech relied on two powerful metaphors often used in political rhetoric: a BUILDING and a GAME metaphor.
The main advantage of these metaphors is that they imply the participation of several people (a community) and work nicely for a good understanding of national unity for a common purpose. It also conveys the need for rules (i.e. regulation) in a non threatening way by emphasizing on the notion of fairness and justice. You need order and rules to pay a game and you need a blueprint to build something.
THE BUILDING METAPHOR
-The BUILDING metaphor can be used for positive or negative assessments depending on whether the foundations are morally good or bad. The economy can be “a house of cards”, a “business model built on breaking the law, cheating customers, and making risky bets” or on bubbles and financial speculation, or it can be “built to last”, “on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country.”. It can apply for the middle-class (“rebuilding the middle class “), or for the entire nation (“how America was built”, “investments that built this country”). It can also be used literally to talk about the nation’s infrastructure (“investments that built this country”).
THE GAME METAPHOR
In a similar way, the GAME metaphor is used for positive or negative evaluation: the system in Washington “can be rigged” or used by “the highest bidder”, but everyone knows that it is morally wrong “when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.”. So what naturally follows is the need for rules (i.e. regulation) so that “everyone plays by the same rules.” because rules are morally good ("They want to have rules in place that don't put them at a disadvantage for doing the right thing",). A game can also be inclusive when “the playing field is larger”; “everyone plays by the same rules, from Wall Street to Main Street.”)
The GAME metaphor is thus closely associated to the idea of FAIRNESS and JUSTICE, with the underlying image of BALANCE. This allows Obama to take a moral stance on inequality and unfairness. The GAME metaphor also plays well with the American belief that LIFE IS A RACE. (“The race we want to win, the race we can win is a race”). But here too, it is not any race, it is the “race to the top”, as opposed to “the race to the bottom” (a race for lower wages for instance) since good is UP and bad is DOWN (see conceptual metaphor theory, Lakoff). This fist well the classical social ladder metaphor (“the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk”).This is even more clearly illustrated by the final sentence of the speech : "I believe America is on the way up."
The emphasis on community is further exemplified by a call for bipartisanship (“a vision that's been embraced in the past by people of both parties for more than 200 years“), through the evocation of historical political figures from both parties - not only Theodore Roosevelt, but also F.D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. A sense of national unity is also rendered by trying to 'bridge the gap' between “Main Street and Wall Street” by using positive image of wealthy figures (Henry ford, Warren Buffet or “Andy Grove, the legendary former CEO of Intel”) as well as corporations praised for their responsible attitude (‘Big Three auto companies”) or by linking CEOs to local communities, particularly small Town America:
“For the CEO of Marvin's, it's about the community. He said: ‘These are people we went to school with. We go to church with them. We see them in the same restaurants. Indeed, a lot of us have married local girls and boys’.”
Obama frames the argument by appealing to American pragmatism, claiming that the trickle-down theory has been tried before but history shows “It has never worked”. Yet, at the same time, he acknowledges that “rugged individualism” and “healthy skepticism of too much government “ is part America’s ‘natural’ identity, making it even part of “America’s DNA”. One might draw from this an opposition between nature and culture. But more importantly, it implies some (protestant) belief in the deterministic nature of the American identity. It is something determined by nature, or determined by logic. The rationale for regulation is not simply that it is morally right, but it is also (and foremost) that it makes economic sense: “That is not politics. That's just math”. Henry Ford is praised for his pragmatic approach: “Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made”
THE AMERICAN DREAM
In the same way way, the reality of the American Dream is made evident by a traditional pragmatic argument - the very fact that “immigrants from around the world historically have flocked to our shores” is proof that the promise that “even if you're born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class” is real.
The expression The American Dream itself is never used in the speech but the narrative is - “that this is a place where you can make it if you try.” is believed to be “at the very heart of America”. Even if it has been said before that Obama himself may be the embodiment of the American Dream, he cleverly uses another a personal personal and highly symbolic illustration - the very story of his grandmother who “started as a secretary, ended up being a vice president of a bank”, which means that Obama himself cannot be biased against banks on principle. Unfortunately, this is a reality of the past and now “the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded” because “hard work stopped paying off for too many people”.
The solution lies in the community because MANY is better than A FEW and “we’re greater together than we are on our own”. This is an effective way to provide a positive backdrop for his political solutions: more progressive taxes, and universal health insurance, which are based on the idea of an entire community sharing the burden.
The other uniquely American narrative is American Exceptionalism: if LIFE IS A RACE and if UP IS GOOD, then America must be at the top. Here again, Obama takes for granted the narrative of American Exceptionalism by presenting a series of superlatives and comparatives:
“the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known;
the most productive workers;
the most innovative companies turned out the best products on Earth.”
And this is not just a thing of the past, it is still true today:
“still home to the world's most productive workers.
still home to the world's most innovative companies.
prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.
nobody does innovation better than America. Nobody does it better. No one has better colleges. Nobody has better universities. Nobody has a greater diversity of talent”
If nothing else, the logical conclusion to this series of superlative can only be “That's why we're the greatest nation on Earth. That's what our greatest companies understand.”.
One of goals is of course to boost confidence in America in these times of crisis and renew a value highly praised in American credo: optimism.
OBAMA & ROOSEVELT.
President Obama treats Theodore Roosevelt as a prophet with "a vision" who "took the same message across the country". But if Obama gave one of his most radical speeches, it is still rather consensual and tells a very conservative national narrative if you compare it to Theodore Roosevelt’s speech in 1910:
It has become entirely clear that we must have government supervision of the capitalization, not only of public-service corporations, including, particularly, railways, but of all corporations doing an interstate business.One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.Quoting Lincoln, Roosevelt also said:
“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration”.Of course, this sort of strong radical rhetoric would be unthinkable in today’s American political discourse especially from a former or current president, let alone a Republican. In fact, president Obama is careful to say that “This isn't about class warfare. This is about the Nation's welfare.” (notice the nice parallelism and the alliteration) thus not only raising the stakes but also making it a question of patriotism.
In fine, the parallelism between 1910 now implied by Obama’s choice of venue and references is a smart move as it also demonstrates how different the Republican party has become. (Washington Post). This will undoubtedly be a theme used by democrats in the presidential campaign.
Even if Obama’s speech in Osawatomie was cleverly crafted, one may deplore that his argumentation which, while being pragmatic, only relies on economics. As Jedediah Purdy reminds us, Roosevelt “put citizenship -- civic and political engagement -- at the heart of the good life he wanted for Americans." In Obama’s speech, “even education, that most civic of public investments, is just about economic opportunity.”
That being said, different times, different words, and Obama’s speech probably reflects quite well the priorities of today’s world in which well-being and happiness must be measured in material terms.