Obama Evokes Socrates In His SOTU

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Obama Evokes Socrates In His SOTU on Wednesday, January 13, 2016.

For his seventh and final State of the Union Address last night, President Obama broke the tradition of his predecessors—and even his own—departing from the customary laundry list recitation of past achievements and future goals by delivering a simple four part harmony.

Right at the outset, he said, “So let’s talk about the future, and four big questions that we as a country have to answer.”

If the question aspect rings familiar, it should evoke your schooldays and the Socratic Method of teaching by asking questions that stimulate critical thinking. As such, it serves as an excellent rhetorical technique for speeches.

And it did for Mr. Obama. He proceeded to organize the balance of his speech around just four major sections:

    • First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?
    • Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us? 
    • Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?
    • That brings me to the fourth, and maybe the most important thing I want to say tonight. The future we want … is within our reach.  But it will only happen if we work together.  It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.

Within each section, he covered the achievements of his seven years and the future goals for the nation. But because they all fell within this simplified structure, he stayed above the choppiness of a laundry list and was able to discuss and develop larger themes within each.

The simplification also had an impact on his delivery. While Mr. Obama’s well-known oratorical skills are often credited with getting him elected in the first place, over the course of his two terms in office he became more reserved, often appearing aloof and detached. Not so last night. He was more relaxed, his voice rang with color, and his gestures punctuated his words forcefully.

His dynamic delivery was reminiscent of his 2008 campaign and his recent speech on gun reform I described in my previous Forbes post. In those speeches, his rhetorical fire was fueled by emotion. In the State of the Union it was enabled by his structure.

In both cases, he enhanced his substance with his style.

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Obama Evokes Socrates In His SOTU on Wednesday, January 13, 2016.