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Obama's campaign-style rhetoric

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Martin Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has authored or edited more than a dozen books on presidential rhetoric. He spoke to the Trib regarding President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Q: What was your overall impression of the president's rhetorical style during the State of the Union address?

A: To my way of thinking, he took almost a campaign approach to the speech. Much of it, you know, was set for applause lines and things that you know he knew would be popular. So in that sense, I think it was a well-crafted speech, rhetorically.

It certainly followed the formula of most State of the Unions and touched on a little bit of everything. It was a fine performance, and the style of speech was very consistent with past Obama speeches. He used a lot of the same words that he used during his campaigns. From a purely rhetorical point of view, I think it was about as successful as a State of the Union can be.

Q: The president began the speech by mentioning a number of Americans working hard and overcoming struggles. Was that a powerful way to open, or did the fact that he failed to identify any of these people dramatically diminish their significance in the speech?

A: In a sense it was brilliant, because when he did use the unnamed Americans, in every instance they were illustrations of the success of his policies. It was a very — I won't use the word “sneaky” — but it was a rhetorically sophisticated way of praising himself while seeming to praise ordinary Americans.

Q: What stood out most to you about the speech?

A: At several key moments, I felt like I was listening to Obama the campaigner rather than Obama the president. That happened when he turned to women, which was clearly an appeal for the female vote. It happened (when Obama discussed) immigration. It happened at several points where I'm thinking: “This is not really about legislation. This is really about the 2014 elections.”

Q: So you believe the president was focused more on bolstering the chances of Democrat candidates by touting the successes of his administration than delivering a comprehensive address on policy and legislative initiatives?

A: This was at least as much a political address as it was a legislative address, and he sort of laid out some of the themes that midterm candidates could run on.

Q: Did any of the president's rhetorical tactics make an impression on you?

A: One of the interesting things rhetorically was how he married two terms that historically have been identified with different parties. Those terms were “progress,” which has historically been identified with the Democratic Party, and “opportunity,” which has historically been identified with the Republican Party.

He married those two terms I thought in a very interesting way and, in essence, sort of took the opportunity theme away from the Republicans. He said, “You know, here is opportunity, follow my way.” I don't know how successful that will be legislatively, but rhetorically I thought it was pretty interestingly done.

Q: What letter grade would you give the address?

A: It was a pretty good speech — probably a strong B, B-plus.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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