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    The Poet Obama

    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.

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    Reader Comments (9)

    The "gap" is the difference between the richest and the poorest. The poorest are always right near zero. So the gap just measures how wealthy the wealthiest are. It would be better for the economy if rich people were poorer? Our economy would be stronger if everybody were equal? Come on, Figaro.
    December 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhil
    A powerful metaphor is worth 10,000 words.
    December 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristine
    Phil, it's economics 101: When the top 1% own an usually high share of the national wealth, the economy tends to suffer--especially when that economy is consumer based. The gap isn't between the richest and the poorest; that's a continuum, not a gap. It's between the richest and everyone else.

    Few economists disagree that restoring the historical amount of taxation to the wealthiest--the amount that was taxed from 1959 until the mid-2000s--would go much of the way toward resolving the deficit and improve the economy.

    But this blog is rhetorical, not economic. The salient point here is that the Republicans have convinced most Americans otherwise. Until now. The question is whether the Democrats can seize on that change. If they do, they win. If they don't (which seems likely to Figaro), they lose.
    December 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    I really like this. It's not about communication, it's about communion. Not about POV but a shared vision.
    December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Thompson
    If you're going to make this site political, I wont hold back either. Obamas problem isn't in his rhetoric, its in his socialist agenda. Also you're comprehension of economics is deplorable at best. Income Inequality and the wealth gap doesn't hurt the economy, it is the barrier to wealth that hurts the economy, and those barriers come from taxes and regulation on small business. A tax on the rick doesn't hurt the rich, it taxes the poor from becoming rich, Therein lies the real economic problem.
    December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermike
    Mike, feel free to be political. But try to avoid cliches and misspellings, and use only witty or over-the-top hyperbole. Don't call Obama a socialist; call him a hammer-and-sickle, Lenin-bearded, workers-unite, tank-parade socialist.

    Otherwise you'll be preaching to a very bored choir.
    December 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Lets stop pointing out misspelling(s) and building straw-men, The real issue is your lips being firmly on Obamas, hammer-and-sickle, Lenin-bearded, workers-unite, tank-parade socialist, ass. That, and your convoluted understanding of economics.

    Churchill said it best, “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”
    December 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermike
    Actually, even without change in rhetoric, Obama could still stand a chance.

    Maybe Gingrich isn't a socialist, but he sure is socially listless, which is just as bad.
    December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterObamiteCommie
    Now you're talking, Mike! Love the striking visual.

    January 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterFigaro

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