Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Significance of President Obama's Metaphors in His State of the Union 2012.

A State of the Union address is often about urging Congress to pass proposed legislation, but in the last year of a presidential term, it is naturally mostly about building a case for re-election, especially when facing an opposition-controlled Congress.

Because this is the only presidential speech required by the constitution, the State of the Union Address is formal and ritualistic, and as its name suggests, it also aims at reinforcing unity through the celebrations of national identity, community and values. As such it is an interesting object for anyone interested in studying American identity in political discourse.

Research shows that one of the greatest linguistic tools of political persuasion is the metaphor (Charteris-Black, Lakoff, Lakoff & Johnson). By transferring meaning from a complex domain of politics to a simpler one, the metaphor enables the politician to exploit an existing shared system of beliefs and values in order to advance a particular policy (Beasley). Thus studying metaphors in American political discourse should tell us more about the way Americans view themselves and the world.

Last week, President Obama laid down some of his basic themes for his campaign. He presented himself as a strong commander-in-chief, a unifier, and a defender of American prosperity for all, at the core of which is what could be called his fairness doctrine.

In order to persuade his audience, the President used four essential metaphors:

  1. The War metaphor ('the Army is the Nation'),
  2. The Construction or Building metaphor ('the Economy/The Nation is a Building'),
  3. The Game metaphor ('Life is a Game'),
  4. The Journey metaphor ('Life is a Journey').

These metaphors illustrate very well the speech’s main themes:  the need for unity, the need for regulation and the existence of a strong national leader.

The choice of those particular metaphors are meaningful as they are meant to establish common ground with the voting public by referring to familiar domains of personal experience and social activity only relevant in an American context.

As Jon Stewart noted, President Obama introduced his speech by praising the troops and claiming victory over bin Laden and al Qaeda. It is a classic tale of heroes (“this generation of heroes ; heroes returned home from combat”) winning over villains (“bin Laden; Al Qaida's top lieutenants”).

But contrary to his predecessor, Obama did not dwell on the evil nature of the enemy but rather on the heroic nature of the troops who symbolize the American values of courage, selflessness, and teamwork. As always with the American hero, it is the hero’s character that makes him or her a hero, not his powerful tools.

The troops are role models and the president makes this very clear (Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.”). At the end of his speech, he compares America with the SEALs who captured bin Laden.

This is of course a powerful metaphor for illustrating the need for unity and collaborative effort. It also emphasizes the role of the president as a strong and decisive commander-in-chief and is likely to appeal to more conservative Americans.

As Lexington noted in the Economist this week: “This is the fantasy of many a president. They deploy untold power and enjoy total obedience as commanders-in-chief, but in the civilian domain are checked and balanced at every turn by a fractious polity.”.
In other words, it negates the democratic nature of the nation as America's Armed Forces are presented as a substitute for the democratic institutions (“At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down”.). The anti-democratic natureof the American superheroic tale is something worth exploiting (see Jewett).

This war metaphor also shows that the rhetoric violence in discourse is something Americans are probably familiar and comfortable with and if the president uses it as a tool of persuasion, it is because it is viewed positively by a large part of the audience (“from the blows we've dealt to our enemies, to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back.”). Combat is even seen as a right for citizenship for illegal aliens (“the chance to earn their citizenship.”).

Finally, the war metaphor evokes an underlying religious discourse of American Exceptionalism (“The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe.”), thanks also to the ambiguity of the word “mission” (“in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard”) which carries a religious connotation.

THE CONSTRUCTION METAPHOR is another metaphor prevalent throughout the president’s speech.  The words ‘build’, ‘built’, or ‘building’ are used 20 times and refer either to the economy  (“lay out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last”, “an economy built to last”) or to the nation itself (“So much of America needs to be rebuilt.”, “That's an America built to last”). The construction metaphor is quite common in American political discourse (Charteris-Black): it emphasizes an essential theme of American mythology of creation (Marienstras) as it is related to the Frontier myth of building a civilisation out of the wilderness.

Just like the war metaphor, it is also a great way to illustrate the need for collaborative work – building requires a team of hard working people led by an architect (the president) who lays out the blueprint. Obama makes it abundantly clear: “No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together.”. It can also be opposed to bad constructions: “the house of cards (that) collapsed.” or to Washington that is “broken”.

Finally, the ‘blueprint’ used for construction means you also need to follow certain rules and have a plan.

The GAME METAPHOR also implies some form of collaboration - you usually play with other people – but it is even more useful to illustrate positively the need for rules, or, in economic terms, ‘regulations’.
This metaphor allows for the presentation of a moral dichotomy between discriminatory rules (“Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules.”) and common rules (“everyone plays by the same set of rules”.), or between ‘good bets’ when “We bet on American workers (…) on American ingenuity.” and ‘bad bets’ when banks “make huge (….) risky bets”. But risk can also be good when it’s “every risk-taker and entrepreneur who aspires to become the next Steve Jobs.”, and more importantly when people or institutions are held accountable.

The game metaphor is also a common metaphor used for justice through the idea of ‘fair play’ (“the American values of fair play”, “if the playing field is level”) at the center of the concept of the American Dream (“where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share”) in which “Americans work hard and play by the rules every day”.

The idea of balance is central to the way Americans envision relationships, and it is closely linked to the idea of exchange. This latter notion has religious and legal significance in its earlier form of the Covenant that promises rewards in exchange for certain actions (“promise”; “to keep that promise alive.”; “In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility”; “let's offer schools a deal.”, “And in return…”; “But in return”).

The game metaphor also reflects another traditionally American view of the world of economics by giving a positive evaluation of competition (“my education reform offers more competition”), more precisely illustrated by the “Life is a Race” metaphor (“Don't let other countries win the race for the future.”).

The last major metaphor used in this speech is that of the JOURNEY METAPHOR: “as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong”. It enables the audience to understand time in spatial terms, (“too far to turn back now.”). It is a powerful metaphor in politics because it presents policies as a purposeful activity (you travel to a destination) which requires time and patience, while it also evokes freedom (of movement), including the potential obstacles on the path – in this case Congress (“to fight obstruction with action,”).

Just like the construction metaphor requires an architect, the journey metaphor gives the president the role of a guide, which is illustrated in the rhetorical change from “WE will not go back” to “I will not walk away” and “I will not back down from”.

The journey metaphor has a particular resounding meaning in American political discourse because it is rooted in the American historical experience of people undertaking voyages across the sea and then by people undertaking overland journeys westward. (Charteris-Black).


President Obama’s speech may not have been his most inspiring, visionary or transformational discourse but it is politically efficient. It uses familiar cultural domains of concepts: war, construction, game and journey to make a case for somewhat controversial ideas such as or the need for more regulations - something that can easily spook Americans - or the need for the rich to pay more taxes. President Obama’s theme of war is likely to appeal to more conservative voters and certainly to the American sense of patriotism and nationalism. It is also successful because it meets one of the requirements of the State of the Union genre  (Campbell & Jamieson) by linking past and future and by addressing questions of continuity and change.

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