The Not-so-great Communicator

Posted 28 January 2011 by
President Obama greets the Speaker of the House before the State of the Union Address

President Obama greets the Speaker of the House before the State of the Union Address

On January 25, 2011, President Barack Obama fulfilled his obligation in the year 2011 under Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution. “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient….”

For the Subjects of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, the State of the Union Address most closely resembles a Throne Speech in intent, although there are some major differences.

Throne SpeechState of the Union Address
A throne speech opens of each session of parliament to lay out the upcoming legislative agenda, following the seating of a new parliament.A state of the union address is usually in late January or early February, to give the President’s wish list to Congress—and Congress does not have to follow.
While delivered by the monarch or monarch’s representative, the entire content comes from the entire Cabinet.While the President’s Cabinet gives input to the content, it is the President’s speech containing the President’s agenda.
There could happen more than once a year, if a sitting government falls.While the President may address Congress more than once a year, other speeches usually focus on a specific issue or problem.

If a President where always to get what they want out of their own political party, we would have a public (government) option in the health care reform bill. As a co-equal branch of government, Congress does what Congress wants to do. Because the State of the Union is a wish list only, the President has to sell the agenda in it.

While there are goals set that may be impossible to meet, the facts check out in President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address. The GOP response had factual problems. Even with that problem from the start, some Republicans are making headlines misrepresenting the details of what Mr. Obama said.

I am concerned.

The Democrats seem to be at a rhetorical disadvantage, even with the facts on their side. Mr. Obama could give a great campaign speech, but what has happened since then? It is not enough to state the facts; you have to sell the facts. Is no one editing the President’s speeches in terms of selling the facts?

I am not the only person noticing a lack of rhetorical skill. Here are two examples from the 2011 State of the Union Address.

Boeing 307 in Elliot Bay after running out of gas

Boeing 307 in Elliot Bay after running out of gas

Airplane analogy

Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine.  It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.

An airplane without an engine does not fly at all. You will feel like you are falling like a rock from the start, not flying high. The analogy was a good attempt, but it came up short.

One possible edit on the analogy goes like this.

Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing some of its fuel.  This will lighten the load, but you will run out of gas sooner.

This rhetorical change ties in with what seems to be the Republican strategy these days. That is, do something that may work in the short run, but can be damaging in the long run.

Role of the federal government in research and development

Some people do not understand the important role of the federal government in scientific and manufacturing progress.

The framers of the (current) Constitution promoted science and industry. “The Congress shall have Power…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” (Article I, Section 8). The United States government under the Articles of Confederation (previous constitution) promoted education in the Northwest Ordinance as a civil right, with the Congress under the current constitution reconfirming it.

One of the purposes of the Corps of Discovery lead by Lewis and Clark was scientific research, even if it was not the main purpose. The Morrill Act of 1862, the first of several such laws, established and endowed Land Grant Colleges to focus on agriculture, science, and engineering. Later, the federal government established Sea Grant Colleges (oceanographic research), Space Grant Colleges (space research), and Sun Grant Colleges (energy research).

The United States subsidized railroad construction starting around 1850. The US Army Corp of Engineers keeps our rivers navigable. The Federal Aviation Administration subsidizes airport construction, as well as running the flight control system.

The Bonneville Power Administration provides cheap power for Microsoft and Google server farms.

The NASA Space Program and the Minuteman Missile System gave us integrated circuits in electronics. Light emitting diodes, artificial limbs, freeze dried foods, aircraft anti-icing systems, and the Dustbuster all came from NASA research.

The modern commercial Internet resulted from military research networks, as the result of legislation written by Al Gore.

This list of support that the federal government has had for research and development is very long. Yet there are those that think the best way to support innovation is for the federal government simply to get out of the way. It is an unproved theory because it has not happened that way yet. Even James J. Hill’s empire eventually consisted of railroads built with federal assistance.

The 2011 State of the Union Address supports federal involvement in research and development.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.  Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.  And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.  We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -– (applause) — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

The problem is Mr. Obama has not supported this involvement well to an audience today that shows ignorance of the role the federal government in research and development throughout the entire history of the United States. This history needs better publicity than the publicity saying the federal government needs to get out of the way.

The federal government is not in the way, it provides the way.

If the Obama administration does not make the case for the Sputnik Moment, the United States has given away our future leadership to countries that are funding research and development. The countries funding research and development include China and India.

It is that simple.

The facts are there and clear. What should be done to improve the selling of the message?

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