Deconstructing the Speech

A close reading of the President’s speech to schoolchildren today reveals some notable things. As a trial lawyer, it’s professionally interesting to see how he makes his case – and to see what case he is actually making. And as the father of a new kindergartner and a toddler, I’m interested in seeing how he goes about trying to influence our children – not because I’m paranoid about him influencing my kids but because I’d like to learn how to do it myself.

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Let’s start with some statistics. My computer counted 36 uses of the word “I” and 15 uses of the contraction “I’m” in 2,367 words. The subject is supposed to be “school,” but that word only appears 25 times. So, the subject is the President.

The first two paragraphs seem innocuous, but they set the tone. There are a lot of contractions – 110 by my Dell’s count. You use those to seem comfortable and informal, sort of like Matlock would. It assures the jury – I mean the kids – that you are not so different from them, that you’re one of them. It’s a good move – I do it. I’m just not sure the President should.

After some attempts at light bonding through feigned commiseration — “[S]ome of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could’ve stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.” — he moves right into the meat of the speech – anecdotes from the life of Barack Obama.

Fair enough – it’s not a bad story, but it gets distracting. When he discussed about how his mother gave him “American” lessons every morning at 4:30 a.m. in Indonesia, I wondered why he would bring that up when every “birther/Obama is a Muslim” nut out there would hop right on it. Of course, maybe he wants to spin up a controversy where he’s in the right to drag the spotlight off his communist cop-killer-hugging “truther” ex-green jobs czar. If so, give him an “A” for spin strategy. And don’t take the bait.

He also mentions that his mother would call him “buster” when he got out of line. I’m not sure kids today can relate. Most of the special little snowflakes listening to his speech are totally unfamiliar with the concept of parents asserting authority over them.

He then outlines the non-reflexive theme of his talk: “I’m here because I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year.” Objection! I’m unfamiliar with any provision of our Constitution enumerating setting expectations for our school kids among the responsibilities of the President.

He next moves right into another of his Top 5 rhetorical tricks – the “As I’ve said before …” gambit: “Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.” With this, the President firmly establishes himself as 100% behind education and responsibility and in unwavering opposition to those who are against education and responsibility. I guess you know who you are.

He is also on record about “your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.” Again, I have a problem with the premise that the President has anything at all to say about how I raise my kid.

He also mentions how he has talked about the responsibilities of teachers and government. The speech does not contain the words “union,” “charter” or “choice.” I didn’t bother looking for the word “voucher.”

Then he gets to the kids’ own responsibility. Fair enough – I’m all for putting the consequences of bad decisions (like not studying, skipping school and listening to hip hop) on the person making them. This is because it is the most economically efficient way to incentivize good behavior and because, as Judge Smails observed in Caddyshack, “The world needs ditch diggers too.”

The President observes that everyone has at least one talent that makes them special, and gives an example. “Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book . . . .” Yeah, folks who have written books are awesome. Or maybe you could “come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine.” That’s less likely – the next iPhone will come from India after California’s anti-business environment drove the inventor out of Silicon Valley. But we do need folks to invent new medicines and vaccines – otherwise there’ll be no one left for the Democrat-supporting plaintiffs’ bar to sue.

He then mentions that the kids might want to become “a member of our military” but accurately warns that “You’re going to need a good education” to do so. That’s true and great to hear from our commander-in-chief. Nice to see he isn’t buying that “only dummies end up in Iraq” nonsense – our military is fanatical about education.

The President then suggests that education will give you “the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free.” Whoa, Nellie! As a law school professor, the President knows that “critical thinking” actually embodies the exact opposite of the meanings of both words. It is, instead, code for a left-wing, rote indoctrination that is essentially a crash course in why America sucks. No thanks. But the next line does off-handedly mention that private enterprise might have some small contribution to make to our prosperity.

Then there’s more on his own life experience, including: “There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.” I know that feeling. I’m a conservative trial lawyer in Los Angeles.

Next comes the appeal to personal responsibility:

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.

Wow, I could have written that. Of course, my politics are also congruent with that philosophy instead of completely at odds with it.

Next, he tells the inspiring stories – and they are inspiring – of three kids, Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell, who overcame the odds against their completing their education. This raises a question – does anyone name their kids things like Bill or Susie anymore? Just wondering.

Then he switches into cheerleader mode, talking about the importance of hard work and effort. This is good stuff – again, I just wish he governed like he believed it. He mentions Michael Jordan’s quote “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Hear that, Chrysler and GM?

So, in short, the message, beyond how interesting his own experiences were, is somewhat innocuous – work hard and do well in school. The sub-text, though, is a bit different. The President has no real business making this speech and injecting himself into my kids’ lives. If he’s going to talk about educational responsibilities, he might at least mention the teachers unions that have done so much to stifle reform and protect the incompetent (Yeah, I know the K-5 kids won’t get it but the high school kids know the score). The part about “critical thinking” is just nonsense – the last thing the educrats want is thinking, much less thinking that critically assesses their weary leftist dogma.

Rhetorically, the speech is clearly designed to introduce the friendly face of the President’s ideology to a future generation of voters. It strives for a false familiarity through vivid verbal images and casual manners of speech. But even without the positively creepy discussion guide’s recommendation that kids write letters to the President pledging their help to fulfill his vision, the whole thing is just inappropriate. Thanks for the help with my kids, Mr. President, but no thanks – I think I’ve got it covered.

But at least we can all agree on the speech’s last phrase – “God bless America.”

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