In a major speech yesterday, Barack Obama strung together a set of figurative pearls in a speech that previews the coming presidential campaign. The idea behind the message—that inequality hurts the economy—would be backed by most economists. And Figaro loves the figures that decorate that message. The whole passage sounds concise, thoughtful, and poetic. But it won’t work.
Why? Because of the poetry. It’s Obama’s chief rhetorical problem. And that problem lies behind the Democrats’ messaging woes.
This isn’t about class warfare.
This is about the nation’s welfare.
Speech by Obama on the economy, in Osawatomie, Kansas
antithesis (an-TIH-the-sis), the not-that-but-this figure. From the Greek, meaning “opposing ideas.” Also…
symploce (SIM-plo-see), the beginning-and-end word repeater. From the Greek, meaning “braid together.” Also…
paronomasia (pa-ra-no-MAY-sia), the near-pun. From the Greek, meaning “rename alongside.”
Political speeches exist to contrast ideas, which is why you’ll see a lot of antitheses in presidential campaigns. They’re wrong, we’re right. My ideas work, theirs suck. A great way to spice up this contrast is with balanced sentences that weigh the ideas side by side. If those sentences sound highly similar, the weighing seems more pronounced. This is not warfare, it’s about welfare. And the paranomasia punctuates that constrast even more. Warfare, not welfare. Pretty snappy, right?
But this is where the Democrats, and Obama in particular, are too clever by half. They fall in love with their own poetry. If the speechwriters had allowed a Republican into the room, they would have realized that “welfare” isn’t a word beloved of many Americans. In fact, the term implies that Obama’s message isn’t about the economy at all; it’s about the transfer of wealth.
The basic message is sound, and Obama will be right to stick to it: when the fairness gap gets too wide, the whole economy risks falling into it. But instead of figures, the Democrats need to learn to use images. Tropes. Like the metaphor Figaro just used.
If the Democrats can stop being poets and start painting pictures, they’ll win. If not, they’ll lose. It’s that critical.