Obama’s State of the Union Speech: A Little Chin-Music

I did not watch President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night, but I did catch the opening 20 minutes of it on Youtube. Such speeches are a veritable feast of strategies and tactics for those of us who made the dubious choice to teach rhetoric and writing. In the first 20 minutes, at least, President Obama seems to have chose to go “high and tight” with the rhetoric–to borrow from the lingo of baseball.

In baseball, pitching “high and tight” means that you deliberately throw the ball out of the strike zone and, both vertically and horizontally, near the batter’s head. The purpose to put a bit of doubt, if not fear or anger, in the batter’s pysche, and to keep him (or her) from leaning over the plate, drooling over a fat pitch. The message is “back off.”

I don’t think that was President Obama’s message, per se, although a larger strategy seemed to be to defuse Republicans’ faux outrage over “big government” and “out of control spending.” I say “faux” because they rarely if ever talk about cutting defense-spending, which accounts for a huge percentage of discretionary spending, and they had an opportunity during the Bush II years to cut “big government,” and they didn’t. And yes, I know, the Dems are as “faux” as the GOPers in this regard.

“High”: No, the president did not seem to be under the influence. But he chose to–and/or was advised to–keep the rhetoric lofty and vague–all about “winning the future,” “beating” the rest of the world at (games of) education, invention, and economic competition. He conjured the nostalgia of post-Sputnik, when we “beat” those pesky Russkies. He flattered us. He did provide some concrete examples, but even these appealed more to pathos (emotion) than to the hard facts of the national ledger. He used the balanced expressions we recall from John Kennedy’s speeches–gay and lesbian persons will no longer be prevented from serving the country they love because of whom they love, etc.

He shared a pithy slogan: “win the future.” By staying high–lofty, general, nationalistic, gazing toward a bright future–he took away a Republican opportunity to be petulant and crabby. Perhaps Joe Wilson was tempted, again, to be rude and to shout, “You lie!” But in response to what? Obama backed him off the plate, so to speak. You lie because you said America is unique and great? Because you said we could win the future? Hard to get a purchase on that kind of rhetoric.

“Tight”: By embracing bi-partisanship, he figuratively hugged the Republicans, or at least tied them up so they couldn’t swing at him (or his pitch) immediately. They couldn’t very well get miffed about his coming out in favor of innovation, education, economic competitiveness, working together, and winning the future. He probably supports the value of oxygen, too; can’t argue with that, either. Consensus all around!

“High” again: by staying lofty, Obama positioned himself above the bickering fray–momentarily, and for public consumption.

What did the GOPers object to, judging by a decision not to applaud, or reluctance to smile and nod?

When Obama suggested taking away subsidies of oil companies, Boehner did not applaud. He probably gets money from such companies, so in this context his decision makes sense. On the other hand, he implicitly came out in favor of oil companies, like the enormously popular BP. A bit of a pickle, that.

They seemed reticent to respond favorably when he mentioned trimming the budget. He prefers to use a scalpel–or pretend to use one. They prefer to use a chainsaw–or pretend to use one. They want to pretend to slay Grendel and Grendel’s mother: Big Gub-ment (as I noted, they had a golden opportunity and passed). He wants to take a nip and a tuck–maybe.

Mostly hoo-ha, the speech? Of course. That’s the genre. That said, it was probably rhetorically–maybe even politically–smart for President Obama to do as Sal “The Barber” Maglie, a professional pitcher, once did: stay high and tight, also known as playing “chin music,” because the ball is quite close enough to hear, buzzing by at 80+ miles per hour.


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