President Obama’s speech responding to Supreme Court decision: Analysis


by Peter Watts

Health care is one of America’s most emotive issues. Opinions on either side of the debate are heartfelt, sincere, passionate, and frequently entrenched.

Today’s outcome in the Supreme Court was critical to President Obama. If the White House was watching CNN during this morning’s announcement they would have roller-coasted from despair (“they’ve struck it down”), through to elation (“they’ve upheld it”), and through to surprise…. “Chief Justice Roberts was with the majority???? Really?????”

No one can predict the impact this decision will have on November’s election. Which side of the electorate will be more energized by this outcome? Republicans or Democrats. The Supreme Court has fired the white ball of it’s opinion out onto the table and scattered political reds in all directions.

How President Obama crafts his response this morning will have a major impact on how those balls continue to ricochet throughout the election.

Can he simultaneously fire up his own base, without firing up Republican voters and activists even more? Fiery triumphalism will prove fatal, whilst the classic Obama cool will fail to mobilize Democrats.

What we’re looking for in the speech might include some of the following:

Pathos
Pathos involves an appeal to the emotions. The President wants to bring a lump to the throat of supporters, while dampening the fury of opponents. The vocal tone is likely to be modestly humble. A family man, not a President, reaching out to other families and talking about the protection of those families.

The entire speech can’t be an emotional sob-story however. A little touch of fire is required to motivate that Democrat base. The President will need to identify a bad guy who needs to be beaten, and for that, he might use….

Personification
This technique attaches human motives and emotions to things that normally don’t have them, such as “the markets”. To put some heat into the speech, the President will need to build an adversary into it. That adversary cannot be personified as anyone who might be motivated to vote against him. We’ll see it targeted at something inanimate, maybe even Corporate, and quite probably funding a SuperPac. Listen out for words such as “uncaring” or “greedy” as the lead-in to the adversary section of the speech.

Another clue to the setting up of the adversary will be the President’s voice tone. If there is a phase when President Obama picks up his speed and volume, then this will likely be it.

Proof
At the moment few Americans have directly experienced the benefits of the Health Care Reforms. The President needs to bridge this reality gap by framing a picture that everyone can associate with. Expect to hear a story (probably fairly heart-rending), and the purpose of which is to communicate to the audience “this could so easily be you, or your family affected.”

Palilogia
Repetition techniques are a key part of great speeches. There are numerous techniques. Palilogia involves the repetition of the same word or phrase three times. For example “Care, care, care”.

Other repetition techniques you are likely to hear are anaphora which involves the same word repeated at the beginning of each phrase, or its counterpart, epistrophe, which is the same word repeated at the ends of consecutive phrases.

Presidential
Finally and most important of all for President Obama, today’s speech can be as great a moment as his first Inaugural Address. Whether or not he gets a Second Inaugural Address, may well hang on how well he speaks, just a couple of hours from now.

;

UPDATE:

The President has now spoken. How did he do?

The tone of the speech was lecturely. We saw slightly more of Professor Obama, than President Obama. The tone worked however because this would have avoided firing up the GOP base as it would have done had he struck a more triumphalist tone.

How did he fare in motivating the Democratic base, Independents, and the Undecided?

Very well. There was a heavy use of personification and the inanimate objects selected were the insurance companies and at one point their CEO’s. A smart choice in terms of a perceived “bad guy”.

As to proof, there was proof aplenty. In particular, the story of Natoma Canfield, the lady whose insurance was cancelled when sick. The story of her letter served to give an audience many of whom are yet to feel benefit from Health Reform, a vivid example of “this could be you.”

Repetition techniques featured strongly, in particular anaphora. For example, when personifying insurance companies as being the adversary, we heard phrases that start with the words “No longer can they….” This structure was repeated four time. A heavy repetition.

As to the Presidential tone, I think Obama may have introduced a little too much politics for it to have been truly Presidential. In particular there was a dig at Mitt Romney, and a blatant call-out to women voters.

The President’s conclusion deliberately moved the debate onwards from health care. He projected forward five years, ten years, fifteen years, and then twenty years into the future. He used the words “move forward” repeatedly and spoke about how it is now time to fix the economy and put this debate behind us.

I suspect that this part of the speech may have been written in the moments immediately before he approached the microphone, contrasting as strongly as it does to the tone of Mitt Romney’s speech delivered just fifteen minutes before. In that speech, Romney struck a backward looking emphasis on returning things to how they were before the Health Reforms. The word “returning” was repeated several times, and one of the synonyms for returning is “to go back”.

The President has concluded by setting up a sharp contrast for the election by positioning himself as moving forward and the GOP as wanting to move back.

It’s a clever move at the end of a good speech. Not a great speech, but a good speech.

Let’s see what happens next.

Comments

  1. I think Obama has pulled back from the killer orator of the last campaign. He is a master but he seems to be using his power sparingly. Anyone else see it like that?

    • It’s a question that has occurred to me too. Recently speeches have been distinctly underpowered.

      In the case of the SCOTUS response, I think underpowered was the best approach, but there have also been other speeches where Obama the Champion would have been more appropriate, and they were lacklustre as well.

      Most of the US electorate won’t start to consider their election choices until September at the earliest. Possibly we’re seeing a strategy to keep the powder dry until then.

      • Many theories about what Obama is up to..

        I wonder if he is favouring action over words – he doesn’t want to be seen as a speech maker…

        Or I have a friend who seriously thinks he’s been clinically depressed…

      • Many theories about what Obama is up to..

        I wonder if he is favouring action over words – he doesn’t want to be seen as a speech maker…

        Or I have a friend who seriously thinks he’s been clinically depressed…

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