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Jan 13 2016
by Kyle LaHucik

Why Rhetoric Matters in America: POTUS's Final SOTU

By Kyle LaHucik - Jan 13 2016

I’ll take you straight to the end of President Obama’s final State of the Union address (SOTU):

“I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people. And that’s why I stand here, as confident as I have ever been, that the state of our Union is strong.”

Obama’s speech last night was one of optimism, full of hope for the future, but mixed with hints of realism, proving that we can’t – and sometimes shouldn’t – fix everything on Earth. His final SOTU was marked by rhetoric that appealed to the entire nation, at multiple points calling for the American people to take a stand and to fulfill their roles as citizens: “our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen, to vote, to speak out, to stand up for others… knowing that each of us is only here because somebody somewhere stood up for us.”

The underlying message to his speech was that the America we know is much stronger than we hold it to be and that we can build on to our nation (with the influential guiding forces of our successes in the past) because our future is optimistic. That theme is spread throughout last night’s speech:

“But we can do so much more.”

“And it’s within our grasp.”

“But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future.”

The mixture of optimism and realism really brings me to the point of this article: Obama’s message and his rhetoric (ultimately how we perceive his presidency, how we perceive our nation in its current state) are vital in understanding our nation and what we need to do right now and in the future to improve upon ourselves. The annual SOTU is so critical to our nation because it informs us of how we can make change, of how we can work together.

As the leader of our nation – whether you like it or not – Obama is the person driving our country forward and it’s vital that we listen to what he is saying, how he is saying it (that’s why rhetoric matters in America!) and why he is saying it (context is key). The SOTU is meant for the American people. We don’t receive the security and news briefings that POTUS receives every morning because that wouldn’t help us or rightfully inform us on how to make decisions; instead, we receive an annual deliverance that informs us – and should influence us – on how to fulfill our roles as citizens.

Obama was quite clear in his final SOTU on how the American public can work to fulfill those roles. But, the tasks he asks of us aren’t easy and they shouldn’t be – nothing that’s worthwhile in life ever comes easy, right?

He states, toward the end of his address, “Changes in our political process… that will only happen when the American people demand it. It depends on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.”

Let’s go back to the rhetoric lesson of Obama’s seventh SOTU. Let’s analyze 1) what he was saying, 2) how he was saying it and 3) why he was saying it.

Obama addressed critical facets of American society and the future of our Union in his speech, based on the four questions he imposed in the beginning:

“First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?”

WHAT POTUS was saying: The widening income gap in America needs to be fixed through programs/actions, such as: No Child Left Behind, “hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one,” affordable college for every American, greater recruitment of “teachers for our kids,” “two years of community college at no cost,” “benefits, and protections that provide a basic measure of security,” strengthening of Social Security and Medicare, “outdated regulations that need to be changed” and “wage insurance.”

WHY POTUS was saying this: At this point in American history, the wealth and income gap is widening beyond belief. Right now and in the future, we need to work toward creating a better economy (and we are on the way to doing so) that allows for all Americans to find jobs that will adequately support them. Right now, our economy also needs to be fixed so that big businesses and the wealthy don’t dominate and control our society.

HOW POTUS was saying this: His rhetoric in this section began with a sound set of facts about the growth and progress of the American economy and job sector. Obama started with this to show that our nation is on the right path, but that “we can do so much more.” He follows the facts with a section on how the American economy is also struggling; “Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.” He then states that the American people and the people of Congress sitting before him can agree on measures that need to be taken to ensure a “fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy.” Those measures are then listed (which are summarized in the above WHAT portion).

“Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us, especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?”

WHAT POTUS was saying: Our nation needs the innovative spark to improve our technology to create a better world. Technology and innovations will happen through programs/actions, such as: VP Joe Biden is “in charge of mission control” for the national effort to find the cure to cancer, development and production of clean energy sources – “the energy of the future” – to reduce the effects of climate change (yes, climate change is real), and an improved 21st century transportation system.”

WHY POTUS was saying this: Our generation is faced with multiple challenges, and those most likely to affect our future revolve around climate change/the environment. Technology can be a benefactor in improving the state of our global climate, but we need to be careful; we need to ensure that the technology we create is helpful, not harmful.

HOW POTUS was saying this: Our president began his response to this question by emphasizing the quality of our nation; the discoverers and founders and influencers of our nation’s history are who we are: “America is Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver… America is every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better future.” Again, Obama lists the positives of our nation’s technological innovation over the last seven years, and again says “but we can do so much more.” He then goes into detail about the initiatives and actions he wants our nation to take now and in the future, five, ten years from now.

“Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?”

WHAT POTUS is saying: Obama’s most riveting and probably the most heartfelt and driven moment in his final SOTU comes in this section. He states that we can’t fear the foundation of our nation and the strength of our military. “Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period. Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close. It’s not even close.” He goes on to describe the Al Qaida and ISIL for what they are: “killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.” But, his speech becomes truly heightened when he says, “And that’s why we need to reject any politics – any politics that targets people because of race or religion… This isn’t a matter of political correctness. This is a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong… It betrays who we are as a country.”

WHY POTUS is saying this: Right now, as refugees are fleeing war, poverty, economic and political and natural and social disasters, America needs to stand up and keep our nation safe, but also realize that we are a strong country, that nothing can tear apart our nation. We need to not give into the propaganda of terrorists, and we need to respect other cultures and religions and races at the same time.

HOW POTUS is saying this: Our president commences this section by discussing the threats that ISIL and Al Qaida are imposing, but reinforcing that our nation is safer than any other in the world. He instills in us that we can’t let these “killers and fanatics” destroy our society and how we respect the world: “We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, and we sure don’t need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions.” Obama gives a lot of definitions in this section and a lot of clarity to how we should be perceiving the safety of the world, negating falsities and lies (as evidenced by the previous quote). A big definition that he issues in this section is: “Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right.” This is in response to his statement that “We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis.”

“And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?”

WHAT POTUS is saying: Obama declares this the most important portion of his final SOTU. He declares that our future depends upon a better politics. We need a democracy that is full of “basic bonds of trust between its citizens.” He even shares this: “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better… and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.” Obama declares that we need changes in our politics to advance our society and to make America work more effectively, to reduce the lack of communication and lack of cooperation between political parties. He lists these measures to do so: halting the drawing of congressional districts so that politicians have the ability and power to pick who their voters are, “we’ve got to reduce the influence of money in our politics,” and “We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder.”

WHY POTUS is saying this: It is probably quite obvious why our president is urging a better politics in our nation right now: the 2016 Presidential Campaign is heating up and the race to the presidency is approaching ever-sooner. He wants to ensure that his legacy is one of upbeat change (because that’s what he advocated for in 2008 – “Change we can believe in”) and that the future of our nation (which is the overall theme of his final SOTU) is in good hands and on the path to continued progress.

HOW POTUS is saying this: Our president gives another definition, this time concerning politics and democracy. “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, different regions, different attitudes, different interests. That’s one of our strengths, too.” Maybe that isn’t truly a definition, but it’s a clarity of what Obama sees necessary in the path to bridging the political parties. He enlists ways in which Congress and the American people (he heavily calls upon the citizens of the United States of America in this fourth and final section) can better our politics. He follows this by emphasizing that American citizens need to step up and fulfill their roles, and to demand a better government. He concludes with anaphora (repetition of beginning clause of successive sentences); “I see.” He is referring to the American people that he sees everywhere he travels to in America who “are busy doing the work this country needs doing.”

“And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.”

Let’s not let our democracy break down. Listen to our president for what he is saying, why he is saying it and how he saying it. Because rhetoric matters in America; it influences the way we build our future. 

Lead Image Credit: Politico

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Kyle LaHucik - University of Missouri

Kyle LaHucik is dual majoring in International Magazine Journalism and English at University of Missouri– Columbia. An avid enthusiast of the outdoors, he loves to run, travel, photograph and write about our world, one place at a time. Reading the New York Times and National Geographic while drinking coffee are major facets of his life. Follow him on Twitter @kyle_lahucik.

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