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How President Obama kept the Lizards caged in his 2nd Inaugural Address

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You can read the full speech here, with the various rhetorical devices highlighted and named (my slogan really should be 'I do the work so you don't have to ...') but in this article I want to one real observation about it, not on its political content but on its crafting and design. It's how the President deliberately tried not to unleash his audience's 'Lizards' (if you don't know what I mean by that, I'd recommend you read my article Getting past your audience's Lizard brain before continuing or a lot won't make sense).

the US constitution

One of the key things to do before any speech or presentation is to consider your audience. What's motivating them, what's scaring them, what's worrying them, and .... is there any way they could possibly view what you're about to say as a threat. Because if there's the slightest possibility that their Lizards can view it as a threat ... they will. So let's look at that from Obama's perspective.

First things first - who was his audience? Theoretically, of course, it was the entire US population, but practically I think it was much narrower than that. He had two audiences. The first was undoubtedly his own political base and supporters and the second was 'moderate' Republicans and independents who may be fed up with what he considers to be the unreasonable tactics of the GOP. (On the day before the speech, David Plouffe - the President's senior political advisor - claimed that Republicans in Washington are a "barrier to progress" and "out of the mainstream", contrasting them with "Republicans in the country who are seeking compromise, seeking balance.")

The third potential audience - staunch Republicans - just didn't get considered at all. He attacked both the top 1% and the Tea Party with one sentence: "The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob" and Paul Ryan's comments about the 47% who pay no federal income tax as being 'takers' instead of 'makers' with "Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security ...... do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

Although not mentioning Republicans by name, he castigated them as people who don’t want their wives, mothers and daughters to “earn a living equal to their efforts,” who would cause some citizens “to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” They're those who mistake “absolutism for principle”, “substitute spectacle for politics” and “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” They'd have people’s “twilight years . . . spent in poverty” and ensure that the parents of disabled children have “nowhere to turn.” They'd reserve freedom “for the lucky”, “deny the overwhelming judgment of science” on climate change, and apparently contemplate “perpetual war.”

The message for his primary audience - his power base and supporters - was an unapologetic argument for 'big government'. The difficulty facing him was how to please this audience without alienating and switching off 'moderate' Republicans and independents.

Because his message was unequivocal, and would probably scream 'THREAT!' at them. It was a powerful, muscular, almost pugnacious statement of a political philosophy that effectively said, 'The last three decades of Reaganite conservatism is over' (I know the Democrats were in power for some of that period, but even Bill Clinton said the country needed "a government that is smaller, lives within its means, and does more with less").

It would be difficult to think of an Inaugural address other than FDR's of 1937 that unabashedly made more of a case for a strong federal government. It was the antithesis of Ronald Reagan's 1981 Inaugural (when he said, "It is time to check and reverse the growth of government .... It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment"):

  • "The American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people."
  • "... a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers” (a better articulation of the idea he clumsily defended during the campaign, reduced to the instantly infamous slogan “You Didn’t Build That”)
  • "... a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play."
  • "... a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortune."

So what can do? He knows that if he says the things that will please his supporters, he'll lose his secondary audience. They'll switch off, stop listening and say, "Romney was right about this guy!" The Lizards will be let loose! So to make sure this doesn't happen, he does three things.

First, he lulls them into a false sense of security by talking as if their views are his own, as if he is actually wary of big government and is a believer in individualism: "We have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character." Nothing for moderate Republicans to disagree with there. Everyone's singing from the same hymn sheet.

But there's a twist. In a line that echoes Reagan's famous "Government is nor the answer to the problem. Government is the problem", the President says, "... preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action." It's as if he's saying, "Strong government isn't an obstacle to individual freedom. It's the way to get more individual freedom.")

Secondly, he never actually uses the words 'strong federal government.' He talks about it without actually mentioning it, talking about 'collective action' and 'doing things together' instead. Instead, it's all about 'we':

  • "(we) must do these things together, as one nation and one people."
  • "We vowed to move forward together."
  • "... we will seize (this moment) -- so long as we seize it together."
  • "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."

Hardly a sentence is spoken that doesn't have 'we', 'us' or 'our' in it. I counted 54 uses of the word 'we' and 51 of 'us' or 'our'. In contrast, the word 'I' is used only 4 times, and 2 of those were 'you and I', so that's really 2 more instances of 'us.'

Thirdly, he deliberately wraps his speech with the Constitution, effectively stealing one of the GOP's (and the Tea Party's) main tactics and pulling the rug from beneath their feet. But with a twist. He interprets it in a way that supports his central message, not theirs. After quoting directly from it, he says the country's task is "... to bridge the meaning of these words with the realities of our time."

  • "...our generation's task (is) to make ... these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American."
  • "... the most evident of truths —- that all of us are created equal - is the star that guides us still."
  • "... fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges;... preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action."
  • "... history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they've never been self-executing." (The best line of the speech in my opinion.)

He draws a direct line from the language of the Founding Fathers to the case for more government by grounding it directly in the nation’s founding values. The words "We the people" start five(!) paragraphs.

As John B Judis points out in The New Republic, the use of this phrase goes back to the debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the Constitution itself. In arguing for a strong national government as opposed to the weak state-based government laid out in the Articles of Confederation, the Federalists invoked the idea of popular sovereignty and “we the people.”   

. If the Federalists had openly advocated a strong national government run by a President and Senate, neither of which was elected directly by the people, they would have incurred accusations of trying to replicate Britain’s monarchy and House of Lords. So instead they talked of “we the people” (a phrase inserted by a Federalist author) and of popular sovereignty. The Federalists “expropriated and exploited the language that more rightfully belonged to their opponents."

None of the above is a criticism. In fact it's a compliment. And an excellent example of how to deliver a 'tricky' message without releasing your audience's collective Lizard.


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