The State of the Union: Listen carefully

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President Obama at the White House today
  • Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
  • President Obama at the White House today
With all three branches of government in the same room, the State of the Union address is "a pretty great moment in our democracy," Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House domestic policy council, said last year.

It could be a pretty great moment. Which makes it all the more lamentable that presidents squander it.

Presidential speeches for years have been marked by "the increasing substitution of arguments with applause-rendering platitudes, partisan punch lines, and emotional and human interest appeals," Elvin Lim writes in his revealing book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency.

According to Aristotle, effective rhetoric combines logos, ethos, and pathos, Lim notes. Logos is "the weighing and judging of reasons for a particular course of action," ethos, "the credibility of the speaker," pathos, emotional appeal.

Lim thinks logos in speeches from leaders is critical to a democracy—but that presidential rhetoric today instead is swimming in pathos. He writes:

Democratic leaders face a peculiar tension in their rhetorical appeals to the public. They need both to seek the public's permission, as well as to guide it. The former goal requires that leaders faithfully represent the relevant facts of the political issue under consideration in a manner that facilitates an informed decision; the latter goal requires a degree of rhetorical manipulation to direct citizens toward a preferred conclusion. The anti-intellectual president leans immoderately on the latter end of this dilemma, making him more similar to a Mussolini than to a [Franklin or Theodore] Roosevelt.

To manipulate his audience, a president must entertain it, with humor and inspiration. Consider what Dan McGroarty, deputy director of speechwriting in George W. Bush's administration, wrote in this memo, quoted by Lim:

The President, Mrs. Bush and senior staff continue to measure the success of a speech by the number of applause lines. The President interprets long stretches of silence as a failure on his part to connect. From the podium, nodding heads may be nodding off. Let's face it, applause lines are a kind of currency.

And W. was hardly alone in his quest for this currency. In his SOTU address last year, President Obama started by proudly saluting the troops, of course, and ended by conjuring up the raid that killed Osama bin Laden:

One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter . . .

All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn't deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job. . . . More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other—because you can't charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there's somebody behind you, watching your back.

So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I'm reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes . . .

This is eloquent, moving . . . pathos. There's a place for it, Lim writes; but it's running amok. "Presidential rhetoric does have persuasive and nation-unifying functions, which pathos ideally facilitates, but these purposes should not be the be-all and end-all of presidential rhetoric . . . . Article 2 mandates the president to 'give to the congress information of the state of the union.'"

Like presidents before him, Obama also leaned on heroes in the gallery to win over his audience last year. When the president appeared to give "information," it was heavy on bromides that either made his desired policies seem uncontestable, or at times concealed them. On education:

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. [Applause.] And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn. That's a bargain worth making. [Applause.]

Would anyone argue with the idea that teachers matter? That good ones should be kept on the job, should be able to teach with creativity and passion, and that bad ones should be replaced? But buried in the cliches: teachers should be able to "stop teaching to the test." With its emphasis on testing, Obama's main schools program, Race to the Top, makes teaching to the test far more likely. Yet he managed to say the opposite, and win applause for it.

The pundits will evaluate Obama's speech tonight on how well he communicates and "sells" his agenda. But "there is nothing inherently laudatory about a president who communicates well," Lim writes. "Rather, let us either congratulate or condemn presidents for what they have said."

Hannah Gold helped research this post.

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