Barack Obama ran a campaign in 2008 that, at least superficially, was built on the value proposition that we should move beyond the partisan battles that characterized the previous decades of American politics and instead return to shared set of values to guide our government through compromise.
We all know that the policies that Obama advocated, and subsequently enacted, were far more partisan and ideologically liberal than those of any President since the early-to-mid 20th century. But here we’re concerned with his rhetoric which went beyond typical “moderacy” to moot the idea of a politics beyond ideology.
Over the first part of his Administration, we have seen Obama move sharply away from this rhetoric and combine the rhetoric of the liberal community organizer he once was to lash out against convenient bogeymen like “big oil companies” and “the rich” with what appear to be the candid grumblings of the frustrated college instructor that he also once was who doesn’t understand why all of these dunces just don’t agree with him.
In his speech last night we saw a brief return to the rhetoric of post-partisanship, but spoiled by a desperate attempt to shift blame and demonize his opposition.
We at Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research analyzed the text of Obama’s speech and categorized each element in terms of its theme and rhetorical purpose. Here are the results:
Percent of the speech
Economic Stability and Consequences
President Obama’s attempt to return to post-partisan themes and appeal to values of compromise—values that we are inculcated with from the time we’re in elementary school—occupied approximately two-fifths of his speech and was his most major theme.
But Obama couldn’t quite contain his other instincts and stick to the rhetoric of the image he wants to re-build. He led the speech with blame shifting—putting the responsibility for the crisis that he largely created on everyone but him.
Obama blamed George W. Bush, he blamed Republicans overall, and he blamed those vague and unnamed forces that he seems to believe control the economy.
Obama’s choices apparently weren’t his, you see. They were forced upon him.
When Obama returned to blame shifting later in the speech, he shifted from defense to offense and attacked Republicans in Congress for not doing what he wants.
In total, Obama spent nearly one-quarter of the speech shifting blame in one way or another.
We also saw a return of community organizer Barack Obama lashing out against “the rich” and greedy corporations with rhetoric that resurrects the class warfare of the 1980s and before.
Obama spent 20% of his speech attacking the rich and different types of businesses and arguing that we should fix the debt problem on the backs of those convenient targets.
The rest of the speech contained arguments about economic stability and shared sacrifice. Those minor themes combined didn’t equal the amount of time Obama spent on any of the major themes.
Last night we saw what was, effectively, the first major speech of the Obama re-elect campaign.
Based on this one example, we should expect Obama to veer between attempts to once again define himself as a post-partisan and a return to his roots in attack politics and class warfare.
As we analyzed this speech, we were reminded of another famous Presidential address by a President who had established a non-traditional political brand and now found himself under fire. So we found a transcript and analyzed that speech. Here are the results:
Percent of the speech
The year was 1979 and the President was Jimmy Carter.
While Carter’s speech was a little heavier on the blame shifting (mostly to OPEC) than it was on his rhetorical brand as the empathetic and connected President, the mix of defensiveness and an attempt to recapture his former brand seems eerily familiar.
The one difference between the two speeches is that Carter spent almost one-quarter of his address on patriotic themes and language. Obama barely touched on those themes.
Also, Carter had a six-point plan. Obama didn’t propose any plan at all.
So make that two differences.