You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that if spontaneity is what you seek then don’t go looking for it in the State of the Union address.
This annual saccharine fest is always an exercise in stage management – both from the President (and team) who delivers it to the orchestrated response from the bi-partisan Congress that sits through it.
A lot has been made of how this year was a subdued affair – partly because of the sobering effect of the Arizona shootings and partly because of the subsequent decision for some Republicans and Democrats to break partisan lines and sit together. This, critics say, is partly responsible for why Obama was unable to re-produce the one-hundred standing ovations he notched up in last year’s. That said, I still counted twenty-eight (which is a lot by European standards) and all were accompanied by rictus grins and sententious head nods.
A subdued speech may be no bad thing – particularly as this year’s SOTU was flagged as a centrist call for unity to quell the heated rhetoric that had come to characterise America’s political discourse in recent months.
It did not fail on that front. The underlying messages – innovation, education, jobs and competitiveness – were all non-ideological, technocratic topics. Irrespective of political stripe, it would be difficult for any American to take issue with a speech that is about bolstering the US’s place in the world in light of the new challenges posed by China and India. In pure content terms I felt as though I could have been listening to one of Gordon Brown’s Budgets when he was Chancellor. Except Brown was never afraid to mention poverty and, as one of my fellow SOTU watchers noted, Obama didn’t mention it once.
This is where the similarity to Brown ends. Because clearly the huge rhetorical difference between Obama and Brown is that Obama knows all the tricks to work an audience. And Brown never mastered them.
So, even though the speech was (largely) technocratic in focus, its language was visionary. America was having a ‘Sputnik moment’. There was talk of ‘high-speed rail to high-speed internet’. America was ‘poised for progress’. Alliteration, metaphors, zeugmas – Obama was using all the tools to work his language into something that would inspire the audience and keep it with him.
Furthermore, Obama understands the importance of stories for helping the audience visualise his words and make his message (about the transition from old to new economies) stick. He included numbers and hard data but they are dwarfed by the number of examples he used:
‘The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection.’
I’m not sure how to describe this kind of speech. Visionary technocratic? If you have any thoughts please let me know.